SEATTLE — It’s generally seen as a feel-good story throughout Marinerland that Felix Hernandez recovered sufficiently this spring from a bruised forearm in time to start the season opener Thursday against Cleveland at Safeco Field.
It will be the King’s 10th straight start on Opening Day, a distinction matched by just six other pitchers in major-league history: Steve Carlton, Roy Halladay, Walter Johnson, Jack Morris, Robin Roberts and Tom Seaver.
All but Halladay are in the Hall of Fame — and he seems a good bet to win election once he becomes eligible.
“Ten straight, one team is really a great honor for me,” Hernandez told reporters after learning he’d been picked to start the opener. “I love to be in front of the big crowds and the big stage. I love that. It’s special. It’s special for me.”
History shows Hernandez typically rises to the occasion when the lights go on. He is 6-2 with a 1.64 ERA in openers, but history is just that — history.
What about now? What can the Mariners reasonably expect not only Thursday but throughout the season from their long-time ace?
For me, the answer came last summer in talking to an opposing scout, who said Felix, at this point in his career, is Pedro Martinez with the New York Mets: a once-great pitcher now surviving on guile, reputation and self-belief,
Martinez was 33 and entering his 14th big-league season when he joined the Mets in 2005. He spent four years in New York, but throw out 2007, when injuries limited him to five starts.
For the other three seasons, Pedro averaged roughly 153 innings over 25 starts while going 10-7 with a 3.96 ERA. That can help a club, but it’s a middle-of-the-rotation guy. Not an ace.
The Mariners seem to understand this.
“At some point the player adapts,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said, “and I really do think that what we saw last year from Felix is he started to adapt. He’s still confident in himself and he knows what to do.”
You judge if the Martinez comparison holds up.
Hernandez will turn 32 on April 8 and is embarking on his 14th big-league season. A year ago, recurring bursitis in his throwing shoulder limited him to just 16 starts.
When he did pitch, he wasn’t particularly effective.
Hernandez’s 4.36 ERA was his worst mark in more than a decade. He gave up homers at a career-high rate (1.8 per nine innings) and his FIP (fielding independent pitching) mark was a career-worst 5.02.
Further, he no longer functioned as a workhorse. Hernandez averaged fewer than six innings per start — actually just over 5 1/3 innings — for the first time in his career.
It’s possible, of course, those dismal numbers stem solely from his shoulder injury, but that’s hardly a comfort since the general suspicion throughout the game is Hernandez’s shoulder consists of string, duct tape and a fierce will.
“He’s not King Felix anymore,” a front-office analyst for a rival club said. “His days of 200-plus innings and 30-some starts are over. If he gives them 150 innings over 25 starts with a sub-4.00 ERA, that’s a plus.”
That’s Pedro with the Mets.
A sampling of statistical projections reveals greater skepticism.
The Zips model by Dan Szymborski has Felix at 8-8 with a 4.21 ERA in just 124 innings over 22 starts. Steamerprojections.com computes a heavier workload, at 162 innings over 28 starts, but has him finishing 9-10 with a 4.39 ERA.
The simpler Marcels projection system, which uses the last three seasons in descending weight, predicts Hernandez at 8-6 with a 4.12 ERA in just 118 innings.
Such analytical projections aren’t always right. Sometimes, actually, they’re spectacularly wrong. But here they paint a similar picture regarding the King that accurately captures the industry’s expectations.
That Felix insists he’s fine is only reassuring in underscoring his ultra-competitive nature. Analysts often scoff at intangibles, which are hard to measure, but, even if you don’t, they only count for so much.
It hard to find anyone who believes Hernandez can still pitch with the same high-octane macho approach that long engendered the frenzied “K” chant from the King’s Court.
For this much is certain: that shoulder has a lot of miles on it — and it shows. Hernandez’s velocity slipped notably in recent years, and the surge in homers allowed suggests that opponents who sit on his fastball often punish it.
“There used to be a fear factor in facing Felix,” another opposing scout noted. “Not a fear that he could get you out, but a fear that he could embarrass you doing it. Not anymore.”
Whether that’s true might depend on Felix himself. His fastball is still good enough to set up a killer changeup, which can leave hitters corkscrewing in a Bugs Bunny swing.
So we’ll see. Felix beat the odds in recovering this spring in recovering from that bruised forearm and then crowed: “I told you!” Maybe he’ll be chirping again in October.
But today, with April still on the horizon, the Mariners, privately anyway, would likely welcome those Pedro-with-the-Mets numbers: 10-7 with a 3.96 ERA over 153 innings in 25 starts.