Saturday, August 24, 2019

Newsletter Preview: "The King"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 11, No. 71
August 24, 2019

Tonight in Seattle, a weary king will claim his throne, and his subjects will rise as one to honor him.

Felix Hernandez, who at 33 may be nearing the end of a memorable career, will come off the injured list to start for the Mariners. Hernandez hasn’t pitched since May 11, when a lat strain sent him to the IL with a 6.52 ERA. Subsequent problems with his throwing shoulder extended his absence, leaving him to make his return to the majors with just a few weeks left in the season and on his contract. It’s possible that Hernandez doesn’t have much left in his body, making tonight potentially one of his last starts, maybe even his last start, at T-Mobile Park.

It’s been an awful end for Hernandez, who was on a Hall of Fame path throughout his twenties. He won the AL Cy Young Award in 2010, leading the league in ERA and innings pitched, and had a pair of second-place finishes in 2009 and 2014. Hernandez, born in 1986 and making his MLB debut in 2005, will almost certainly be the last young pitcher handled the way he was. Hernandez threw 84 1/3 innings as a teenager, the most of any teen since Dwight Gooden. Teenagers since Hernandez have thrown a total of 116 innings. Draw the line at age 21, and Hernandez stands out even more.

Never Again (IP through age 21, pitchers born after Dwight Gooden)

Felix Hernandez   2005-07    465.2
CC Sabathia       2001-02    390.1
Jeremy Bonderman  2003-04    346.0
Rick Porcello     2009-10    333.1
Zack Greinke      2004-05    328.0

Just two pitchers since Hernandez, Rick Porcello and Madison Bumgarner, have thrown even 300 innings through their age-21 seasons. Porcello looks like he’s on Hernandez’s path; Bumgarner carried huge workloads, counting the postseason, but is still effective at 30. In the same way that Roy Halladay was the last horse, with complete-game figures we’ll never see again, Hernandez was the last pony, the last young pitcher we’ll ever see ridden as hard as he was.

The numbers, and they are legion, don’t quite do Hernandez justice. At his best, he was as watchable as Pedro Martinez, a big kid on the mound, as happy to be playing as you were to be watching, never missing a start, never letting down those raucous Safeco Field crowds. Even when the Mariners were just Hernandez and Ichiro and 23 guys named “other,” they were incredibly watchable for having those two.

It was easy for Hernandez at first, the big kid pounding a two-seam fastball low in the zone and generating both big strikeout totals and big groundball totals. When he lost a few ticks off that fastball in the early 2010s, at the young age of 26, he adjusted by using his changeup and curve more, posting the highest swinging-strike rates of his career after the first velocity dip. It was this version of the King, on August 15, 2012, that made history:

“If you were going to design a perfect game, you might not end up exactly with Felix Hernandez on a getaway day at home in Safeco Field against the Rays, but your design would certainly get you to the interview stage. Take one of the best pitchers alive, one whose upside on any given day is matched only by that of Justin Verlander. Give him a start in a park that suppresses offense like the '85 Bears. Throw him out there against a team that is as poor at getting safe hits -- not just this year, but over a period of years -- as any team in baseball. Have that team playing on the road in a day game after a night game with its best hitter for average on the bench.

“When I think about what happened in Seattle yesterday, my takeaway won't be Hernandez's electric stuff and superb command, though. I mean, those are on display every fifth day for the pro-rated price of the package, and if you hadn't appreciated the greatness of Hernandez prior to yesterday, that's on you, not him. It didn't take 27 straight outs to validate what Felix Hernandez can do with a baseball to guys standing across the way with bats in their hands. No, what I'll remember is Hernandez's reaction when that final slider crossed the plate and etched his name in the stone tablets of history. There was no been-there coolness, no professional reserve, no just-doin'-my-job handshakes. Hernandez saw the strike call, pumped his fist and yelled, then raised his arms in triumph as his teammates -- without whom no pitcher has ever found his name on those tablets -- rushed to embrace him.

“Hernandez has never pitched in a postseason game, rarely even pitched in a critical game. He's been on national television terribly infrequently for a pitcher who might be the best one alive. He's spent his career working in a small market for mostly bad teams as guys like me talk about him not as a Mariner, but as a potential Yankee or Red Sox or Phillie. In that moment, though, he wasn't a repertoire or a strikeout rate or a contract; he was a 26-year-old having the best day of his career in the sunshine in front of his fans for his teammates.”

That was, that remains, the greatest moment of his career. As has been well covered, Felix Hernandez has never played in a postseason game, despite playing in an era in which it’s easier to make the playoffs than it’s ever been before. Hernandez was let down by his organization and his teammates for most of his career. In recent seasons, that relationship was reversed. Mariners teams desperate for starting pitching watched Hernandez, fighting the second big loss of velocity of his career, become first an innings guy and then a drag on the team. Since the start of the 2018 season, Hernandez has a 5.74 ERA in 194 1/3 innings, suffering the indignity of a demotion to the bullpen during last summer’s pennant race.

Maybe Hernandez isn’t done. It’s an age of miracles, and in that age I’m loath to write off anyone, especially one of the greatest pitchers I have ever seen. In this moment, though, with a ERA like a shaky credit score and the injuries mounting and the fastball fading, it feels like an end.

I recently watched a clip of Elvis Presley in 1969. The King of Rock ’n’ Roll had lost his crown, too many bad movies, too much bad music, far too little care for himself. He took the stage at the old International hotel in Las Vegas on a hot summer night a fallen monarch, the charts and the jukeboxes and the airwaves given over to artists influenced by him just as he’d been influenced by the black artists of the south.

On this night, though, there was no bad acting, no misbegotten pop songs, no what-might-have-been. Presley ripped through his hits to get to his new songs, including my personal favorite Elvis, “Suspicious Minds,” unknown in July 1969. He brought joy and soul and passion to the stage, taking the performance to a level only the greatest ones have.

Presley reclaimed his crown that night, and if his story would end tragically eight years later, it would not end without him reminding us of just who he was. The King.

I wish for that for our baseball King tonight. Let’s hope for one more moment under Seattle’s skies, roof open to a cool August evening, Cascades in the distance. Let’s hope for a diving sinker and a darting changeup and just enough fastball to make them both work. Let’s give the King’s Court reason after reason to wave their placards and cheer their ruler. Let’s hope this man can rise, one time, to a moment the way he did when he was young.

Tonight, we are all King Felix’s subjects.


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