SEATTLE — It was, to use my wife’s word, a “sweet” moment Sunday when the Mariners again chose to mark Father’s Day at Safeco Field by having the Prince, now nine, throw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch to the King.
Jeremy Hernandez has done this before and never seems overwhelmed by the moment. That points to the bluest of bloodlines even if, as father Felix admits, he’d prefer to pursue a career path as a shortstop rather than a pitcher.
It also underscored something else.
The Prince isn’t the only one getting older. The King is now 32, and the mileage on his wonderful right arm is weathered well beyond those calendar years.
While that’s been apparent for a while, it’s still tough to accept that Felix, despite the cold analytics, is no longer one of the game’s elite starting pitchers. That’s particularly true for many here in the Pacific Northwest.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Felix spent time browsing the jewelry counter at the Fred Meyer store near Cheney Stadium. That was before he evolved into a truly rare gem amid the chaff of relentlessly bad-to-worse teams in Seattle.
Oh, how things have changed.
The Mariners, somewhat surprisingly, continue to emerge as a legitimate postseason contender despite the drag created, less surprisingly, on their rotation by their long-time but now erstwhile ace.
While Hernandez has, so far, avoided the injuries that plagued him in recent seasons, his current 5.44 ERA is tracking to be, by far, the worst of his career. This might not be the end but, with one guaranteed year left on his contract, it’s in sight.
The King’s next start comes this week at Yankee Stadium, where he has a 1.41 ERA in nine career starts, but it’s impossible to know now what to expect.
Hernandez has six quality starts this season in his 15 outings and two more in which he pitched into the sixth inning while permitting two or fewer runs. But he has also permitted at least five runs on five occasions.
It’s been good, bad and (too often) ugly, but this much seems clear: That fat ERA is, unfortunately, an accurate reflection of his performance to date.
Hernandez pitched well in his last outing — seven solid innings in a 2-1 loss to Boston and, afterward, manager Scott Servais naturally chose to focus on positives.
“The physical demeanor was much better,” he said. “The energy was great, but the stuff was better. If you’re grading out the quality of pitches, the sequencing of pitches, the pitch usage…all of those things were very encouraging.”
There is truth in Servais’ words but also large dollops of hope and spin. Hernandez has, as noted above, previously shown the ability this season to flash glimpses of his former skills. He just hasn’t done it consistently.
“That that’s the way I need to be every five days,” Hernandez admitted. “Be aggressive, play with emotions. I’ve just got to go out there and be me. Get aggressive — be me and do whatever is possible.”
That sounds fine except that’s how Felix has always pitched. More than just a fierce competitor, Hernandez long succeeded by displaying a gunslinger’s aggressiveness while trusting that his best was better than your best.
Usually it was.
But with a fastball that now works in the low 90-mph range instead of the upper 90s, the simple macho approach that so often overwhelmed opponents in the past is no longer the best option.
Look at the numbers. It isn’t just Mike Trout who can sit back and crush a fastball challenge from Hernandez when the pitch isn’t well-located.
“Oh, he’ll tease you,” a pro scout from a rival club said. “There will be days when things are working, and he looks like the old Felix. But he’s not, and it’s not close. The old Felix could beat you with attitude when he didn’t have his best stuff.
“Not anymore. Now he’s just an ordinary guy. When he’s not locating, he’s going to get hit.”
It is a cruel irony that Hernandez’s slippage, after so many stellar seasons, comes just as the Mariners appear poised to end a postseason drought that extends to 2001 — the year before he signed with the organization as a 16-year old.
The cruelty could actually cut far deeper.
Let’s say the Mariners reach postseason. Yes, they still have 90 games remaining. All sorts of things could happen, and fans hereabouts are conditioned to expect disappointment, but let’s just dream a little for the moment.
Further, let’s dream that they reach the division series either by winning the American League West or by winning the wild-card game. (In other words, no one and done with a wild-card loss.)
When clubs reach the division round, they typically pare their rotation to four starting pitchers. Now, look again at the numbers and, from an analytic standpoint, if you had to make that decision today, who would be the odd-man out?
Look, it might not be Felix. Heck, he might yet reach down and find some reservoir of greatness simply from muscle memory over the next three months. That’s not hyperbole. Great players often find a way to mount a final charge.
And Felix was truly great once. That’s the Felix we hold onto, and sentiment says he deserves to experience postseason, if the Mariners get there, after they wasted that greatness for so many years. (They paid well for it, but wasted it nonetheless.)
But analytics recognize no such sentiment. Much like analytics favor foreclosing your mortgage if you can’t pay, analytics say Felix needs to pitch better on a more consistent basis to hold his spot if the Mariners reach postseason.
Analytics are cruel.