Desperately missing King Felix
Mariners’ best chance at rescuing season is quick return by its ace
In the original Star Wars, Princess Leia’s hologram uttered a line that’s become famous in movie lore: “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”
Replace “Obi-Wan Kenobi” with “Felix Hernandez” and you’ve got the Seattle Mariners’ predicament.
The Mariners’ once-promising season is danger of slipping away, and the numbers suggest Seattle’s best chance at rescuing its flagging campaign is a quick return from its ace pitcher.
Hernandez hasn’t pitched since May 27, when he surrendered six runs in six innings in a 7-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins. Five days later he went on the disabled list with a strained right calf muscle, and he remains on the DL to this day.
Prior to that the Mariners were the hottest team in baseball. Between April 13 and May 25 Seattle was 26-12, vaulting the Mariners into first place in the American League West. Optimism was finally beginning to break through in a city that’s learned to treat the Mariners with a healthy dose of skepticism, and visions of ending a 14-year playoff drought were materializing on the horizon.
But just as the Mariners were about to ascend to the peak, they lost their balance and tumbled off a cliff.
Hernandez’s loss on May 27 began an abrupt about face as someone shoved the
sizzling Mariners into the deep freezer. From May 27 to June 23, Seattle’s record was 8-19. The Mariners went from playing at a lofty .684 winning percentage during the previous period to plummeting to a pitiful .296. As a result, Seattle sat at 39-38 prior to Wednesday’s game and was just trying to tread water in the AL wild card race.
And it’s hard not to see Hernandez’s absence as the main catalyst in the fall.
In truth, Hernandez wasn’t having a vintage King Felix season. Sure, his numbers look good on the surface as his 2.86 ERA is lower than his career mark. But a closer examination shows worrying signs.
His strikeout rate is down (a career low 7.6 per nine innings), his walk rate is up (a career high 3.7 per nine innings), and his fastball velocity is declining at an alarming rate (90.1 mph, down two mph from last season and more than six mph from his peak). This season the Mariners are no better when Hernandez is on the mound (5-5 in his starts) than when he’s off it (34-33).
But Felix is more than just a pitcher to the Mariners. He’s a presence, and his absence is having an adverse effect on Seattle’s pitching staff.
Looking at the difference in the Mariners’ stats between their 26-12 stretch and their 8-19 stretch, it’s all about the pitching. Seattle’s offensive numbers are nearly identical during those periods. The Mariners slashed .265/.334/.441 for a .775 OPS during the winning stretch and .268/.326/.452 for a .778 OPS during the losing stretch. The team’s run output dropped just a smidgen from 5.1 per game to 5.0.
But the pitching staff is a completely different story. The Mariners went from having a 2.97 ERA and allowing 3.4 runs per game during the good times, to having a 4.83 ERA and allowing 5.3 runs per game during the bad.
The pitching woes showed no discrimination as both the rotation and the bullpen were afflicted. Among the starters, Wade Miley, Nathan Karns and Taijuan Walker saw their combined ERA increase from 2.89 to 6.06 and their combined WHIP balloon from 1.16 to 1.64, and the Mariners’ went from going 17-6 in their starts to 4-10.
In the bullpen Nick Vincent, Mike Montgomery and Vidal Nuno, the only relievers other than closer Steve Cishek who were available throughout those periods, went from being lights out (1.08 combined ERA, 0.78 combined WHIP) to being lit up (4.18 combined ERA, 1.48 combined WHIP).
All of which led to an ugly stretch that included losing streaks of six and four games, as well as getting swept at home by the lowly Minnesota Twins, who have the worst record in baseball.
Those don’t happen if Hernandez is around, even if he’s less than his dominant self. One thing Hernandez has shown the past couple seasons is he knows how to adjust to his declining stuff. And one thing he’s always had is a ace mentality. One of the jobs of an ace pitcher is to make sure the losing boulder doesn’t gain too much momentum as it starts rolling down the hill. There’s no doubt Hernandez’s willpower alone would have prevented things from getting as bad as they did.
There was some good news regarding Hernandez earlier this week. On Tuesday he threw about 25 pitches during a bullpen session, and Mariners manager Scott Servais didn’t rule out the possibility Hernandez could return to the rotation prior to the All-Star break, which begins July 11. That return can’t happen fast enough for Seattle.
So Felix, please hurry back. The Mariners desperately need you. Not just for your arm, but for your presence.
For more on the Seattle sports scene, follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.
Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez has not pitched since May 27 and is not expected to return until after the All-Star break.