Exile for King Félix?

The outcome seems unthinkable, but the trendlines are undeniable and the conclusion unavoidable: Félix Hernández, for so long the ace of the Mariners, is doing more to hinder the team’s bid for a playoff spot — and thus end the longest drought in North American professional sports — than to help it. As the Mariners try to claw their way back into the second AL Wild Card spot, his place in the rotation is in jeopardy. The 32-year-old righty fondly known as “King Félix” may not be dead, but his exile from a job at which he’s excelled for so long may be imminent.

On Tuesday night against the Rangers in Arlington, a hellish place for a hurler even when the first-pitch temperature isn’t 98 degrees, Hernández was torched for a career-high 11 runs. Granted, just seven of those were earned, due to a pair of errors when hot smashes deflected off the normally reliable glove of Kyle Seager, but by the time those happened, the reality was already clear: the Hernández who had breezed through the first two innings on just 23 pitches, retiring all six hitters and making his pal Adrián Beltré look silly on an 0-2 curve, had left the building:

Alas, there was little joy in what transpired after that. After getting ahead of Robinson Chirinos 1-2 to start the third, Hernández’s command deserted him. He threw three straight balls for a leadoff walk, then surrendered hits to four of the next five batters, plating four runs (two on Rougned Odor’s double) before Beltré grounded into a double play. A one-out walk to Joey Gallo in the fourth, followed by Seager’s first error, set up the Rangers’ fifth run, via a Willie Calhoun sacrifice fly. A two-out, one-on error by Seager in the fifth was soon followed by a three-run homer off the bat of Jurickson Profar to run the score to 8-4.

Clearly, Hernández didn’t have it, yet manager Scott Servais let him go through the order one more excruciating time, with predictably brutal results. He retired just four more hitters, none consecutively, and yielded homers to Odor (a two-run shot) and Beltré (yeesh, with friends like that…) in the sixth. It was just the eighth time in 398 career starts that Hernández yielded at least three homers in a single start, but the second this season. (April 4 against the Giants was the first.) He walked four batters and netted just three swinging strikes from among his 90 pitches, the fourth time this season he’s gotten three or fewer, and the third in his last five starts. It was the second time in three starts that he was charged with seven runs.

“I lost my command after the first two innings,” Hernández said afterwards. “I was just leaving it in the middle of the plate, making a lot of mistakes. You see the results.”

Updating what I wrote for Wednesday on the Wild Card race between the A’s and Mariners, Hernandez has just one quality start out of his last eight turns, with a 6.58 ERA, 5.67 FIP, 15.8% K rate and 1.8 homers per nine — an untenable performance given the Mariners’ quest for a playoff spot. For the season, he owns a 5.73 ERA, 5.03 FIP, and 0.3 WAR in 124 innings — the last mark a click less than he managed in 86.2 innings last year. Of the 39 qualified AL starters, only Lucas Giolito has a higher ERA. Only Giolito and three others (one of them Bartolo Colon, Hernández’s opposite number on Tuesday night) have higher FIPs, and only six others have a lower K-BB% than Hernández’s 9.6-point mark.

Given all of that, it’s no wonder that Servais was noncommittal regarding Hernández’s rotation status when asked about it after the game. “We’ll see. We have to take a look at where we’re at going forward here,” said the manager. “The next time that spot comes around we’ll be over in Houston and they also have a good club. We have to give ourselves a chance to win every time out there.”

Though Hernández has avoided citing injuries as a reason for his struggles, he did miss a turn just before the All-Star break due to lower back stiffness, and on Tuesday night he rolled his right ankle while covering first base on Shin-Soo Choo’s third-inning RBI grounder, just as all hell was breaking loose. Servais and athletic trainer Matt Toth came to check on Hernández immediately after that play, and he threw a few warm-up tosses before continuing. “My ankle was fine. That wasn’t the problem,” the pitcher said afterwards.

Still, Hernández’s past two seasons have been marred by injuries that have probably been a factor in his declining performances. A right calf strain limited him to 25 starts in 2016, when he posted a 3.82 ERA and 4.63 FIP, while recurrent shoulder bursitis held him to 16 starts with a 4.36 ERA and 5.02 FIP last year. Then again, the 10 straight years with at least 30 starts and 190 innings prior to his 2016-18 slide may be enough to explain Hernández’s decline. You don’t see sustained workloads like that anymore; only one other pitcher who started his major-league career after 1987 has even logged 2,000 innings through age 29: CC Sabathia, who continued to go strong into his early 30s before injuries forced him to reinvent himself. Hernández may yet survive to undergo a similar transition, but right now, that future feels as far away as a colony on Mars.

Via Pitch Info, the average velocities of both Hernández’s sinker and his four-seam fastball have fallen below 90 mph for the first time, and have more or less been in continuous decline since 2014. Here’s a look at his rolling 30-game averages:

Batters have been feasting on just about all of Hernández’s offerings with increasing frequency. The tale of the tape via Statcast is grim:

Félix Hernández 2015-2018 Via Statcast
Year Pitch Type % EV LA WOBA XWOBA
2015 Changeup 26.1 85.4 -1 .281 .268
2016 Changeup 25.4 88.2 -2 .235 .272
2017 Changeup 25.9 84.1 4 .297 .313
2018 Changeup 25.4 88.8 9 .299 .313
2015 Curve 22.0 87.0 1 .160 .202
2016 Curve 19.8 87.6 8 .309 .357
2017 Curve 21.4 86.0 11 .314 .271
2018 Curve 27.6 88.1 11 .254 .312
2015 Four Seamer 12.6 90.4 14 .322 .292
2016 Four Seamer 17.1 88.9 16 .328 .376
2017 Four Seamer 21.7 88.0 16 .373 .377
2018 Four Seamer 10.9 84.5 23 .392 .422
2015 Sinker 33.5 88.8 7 .364 .345
2016 Sinker 32.0 87.0 10 .396 .383
2017 Sinker 22.6 88.3 6 .415 .494
2018 Sinker 30.7 90.4 10 .416 .409
2015 Slider 5.7 89.1 4 .426 .295
2016 Slider 5.7 89.0 7 .269 .333
2017 Slider 8.4 87.2 10 .222 .331
2018 Slider 5.5 92.9 18 .505 .550
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
EV = average exit velocity, LA = average launch angle

Over the past four seasons, batters have increasingly been able to elevate all of Hernández pitches with more consistency; his average launch angle has increased from 4.7 to 11.7 degrees.

With the exception of the four-seamer, batters have also added greater exit velocity when making contact with his offerings. Both fastballs and his slider have been annihilated lately, with wOBAs of .392 or higher and xwOBAs of .409 and higher. His changeup and curve haven’t deserted him yet, but they’ve become less effective pitches over time, as well.

From a more traditional statistical standpoint, one of Hernández’s best skills was his ability to avoid the long ball by creating a steady supply of grounders. His career ground-ball rate is 53.2%, and his season rates were as high as 56.2% in 2014 and -15. In the three years since, they’ve fallen to 50.2%, then 46.9%, and 45.0% this year. In that span, his swinging-strike rate has eroded from 10.7% to 8.4%. Eep.

At this writing, the Mariners haven’t made up their mind regarding Hernández’s next step. Even given the team’s determination that Erasmo Ramirez, who has been out since May 1 due to a shoulder strain, needs at least one more rehab start before rejoining the rotation, Hernández’s ankle tweak and recent back woes give the team cover to send him to the disabled list, perhaps with a rehab start or two to retrench. That said, general manager Jerry Dipoto didn’t list that possibility while discussing Hernández with 710 ESPN Seattle’s Jessamyn McIntyre on Wednesday:

“There are always options, obviously presently with Felix there is an option he goes out on Sunday in Houston and makes his next start, there’s an option he goes to the bullpen and tries to work out in a less impactful role…

“Maybe most importantly, there’s an option of trying to come up with a game plan to try and solve some of the issues.

“We’re doing a little soul-searching internally…”

“These are very hard decisions to make in the worst of times and it’s particularly difficult when you’re dealing with an icon… [T]he primary option – and maybe the most important – is doing the right thing for the team and giving ourselves the best chance to win.”

The Mariners have already dealt with one fading icon this year, that when they nudged 44-year-old Ichiro Suzuki into the role of the role of Special Assistant to the Chairman in early May. Given Hernández’s age and contract status (he’s making $26 million this year, with $27 million guaranteed for next and then a $1 million conditional option for 2020 if he spends more than 130 consecutive days on the disabled list due to an elbow injury), such finality is unlikely, though to read Mariners’ fans thoughts on Twitter and blogs in the wake of his performance, you’d have thought the King was truly dead.

Fortunately, he’s not, and while it may be true that Hernández can’t substantially help the Mariners this year, anyone who watched Tuesday night’s game need only have looked at Colon to appreciate the possibilities for reinvention. The burly 45-year-old righty is barely getting by himself these days (5.18 ERA, 5.21 FIP, 0.2 WAR), but after spending 2006-10 in a wilderness of unsightly ERAs and FIPs in the wake of a rotator-cuff tear, he returned to the majors and spent six years (2011-16) as an above-average starter, totaling 17.2 WAR and becoming an icon in his own right. He still has his good days, and on Tuesday night, Colon earned the 246th win of his career, surpassing Dennis Martinez for the most ever by a Latin America-born pitcher. Now he has his sights on Hall of Famer Juan Marichal’s innings total (3,507), which he’s 61.1 away from matching.

Maybe someday, King Félix can rise from the ashes to join such esteemed company.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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4 years ago

It always makes me sad to see formerly dominant pitchers began to fade with age.

4 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

Even sadder when they try to hang on.

John Autin
4 years ago
Reply to  Thomas

Given the personality type that’s predominant among elite athletes, “trying to hang on” at the highest level is unsurprising, to say the least. Anyway, this is Felix’s first truly bad year, so let’s save the tears for a while. Look how well Anibal Sanchez is pitching this season, after 3 years utterly lost in the weeds.

4 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

Tim Lincecum’s fall makes me sad

4 years ago
Reply to  SirCharlesK

Brandon Webb’s fall was most saddening to me.

4 years ago
Reply to  SirCharlesK

Truly, the one sympathetic thought I will allow myself to have towards the Giants