Facing Felix Hernandez an exercise in frustration for opponents
SEATTLE -- Half-dressed and fidgeting, Dustin Pedroia tried to be busy at his locker during a portion of baseball's eternal downtime. The Red Sox were in the middle of a late June series in Seattle, and Pedroia, Boston's second baseman, was adjusting his gray T-shirt, which was tucked into his uniform pants more than three hours before the game.
Pedroia looked left, right, glanced at the television. A reporter approached to ask if he had a minute to talk.
"About what?" Pedroia asked.
"Why the [expletive] would I want to talk about that?" Pedroia, hands on his hips, voice rising, said. "I had forgotten about that [stuff] until you brought it up."
Pedroia, who was feigning belligerence, went on to explain in unprintable phrases the "stuff" which took place the night before against Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. Despite a big swing and small, 5-foot-8 frame, Pedroia rarely strikes out, but he whiffed twice and went 0-for-4 against the man known as King Felix, who threw a five-hit, 13-strikeout shutout against Boston by deploying 128 careening pitches.
"That wasn't human, man," the Red Sox' David Ortiz said afterward.
Other supernatural acts followed.
On July 14, Hernandez pitched a three-hit shutout of the Texas Rangers, a first-place team that leads the majors in scoring, in which he struck out 12 and walked none.
On Aug. 4, he turned Yankee Stadium into his personal sandbox with a two-hit shutout of the well-heeled, first-place New Yorkers, who rank second in the majors in scoring.
On Wednesday came the crown jewel for the King, a perfect game against Tampa Bay that included 12 strikeouts, including five of the last six batters he faced.
Hernandez, 26, started the season facing constant questions about his decreased fastball velocity. Now, equipment he used Wednesday is being authenticated and shipped to Cooperstown, N.Y. Hernandez's second-half dominance is mind-boggling: In seven starts, his ERA is 1.44, his WHIP is 0.64 and opponents are hitting .144, cursing at themselves, umpires and at Hernandez's unexplainable breaking pitches.
Hernandez has inserted himself into the core of this year's Cy Young race with a run that is akin to his second-half performance from his award-winning 2010 season, when he had a 1.53 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP and opponents hit .192 over those 15 starts.
The shrinking of his ERA coinciding with the trade deadline again prompted calls for the floundering Mariners to ship out Hernandez, who has two years and $39.5 million left on his contract. If they were to move him, something general manager Jack Zduriencik firmly and often says will not happen, the Mariners would lose their ace and soul.
Perhaps more importantly, they'd also be losing arguably the best pitcher in the American League, who has remained in that discussion by refining his craft. He now dominates with a blend of mystery and movement. The days of fighting with force are over.
"Back in the day, I'd throw in the middle of the plate most of the time," Hernandez said. "Now, I can control both sides of the plate."
The consternation around Hernandez's decreased fastball velocity started last season. His fastball averaged 93.4 mph in 2011 and 92.3 this year, according to Fangraphs.com. As a 21-year-old in 2007, he averaged 96.3. Concern about the slowdown peaked in spring training this season. Radio ramblers, bloggers and newspapermen all discussed it.
A month into the season, Hernandez stated his take on the radar gun readings.
"I don't care," he said.
Pedroia was convinced Hernandez was throwing in the mid-90s against the Red Sox during that June 28 start, though he was not. He also thought it had little relevance. He had a hard enough time with Hernandez's cutter, the first time he had seen that pitch from Hernandez, and struck out swinging in his second at-bat on a changeup. "It started away in the other batter's box," Pedroia said. When his swing was finished, the ball just missed hitting him.
"So, I wouldn't worry about fastball velocity," Pedroia said. "Just let him do what he does. How about you only write good things, because there's not a bad thing you can say. I had four at-bats against him. I got one good pitch to hit, I hit it in the gap, and the center fielder ran it down. Sometimes you don't get any."
Hernandez throws five pitches: A diving two-seam fastball, that veering cutter that advance scouts say he added in 2009, a speedy four-seam fastball, a tabletop curveball and an unfair changeup that no one often knows the final direction of when it's released.
This year, he's thrown cutters to left-handers and right-handers, both backdoor and front door, an atypical approach for a right-hander against a left-hander. Midway through Hernandez's shutout of the Rangers, Texas' Josh Hamilton didn't believe teammate David Murphy when informed this was happening. The Rangers were left wondering about another devil in the details.
Opposition consensus is to stay away from Hernandez's changeup, though he'll throw it on back-to-back pitches and in full or 0-0 counts. It usually travels 89 mph then drops as if it's a sack released from a helicopter. His arm action on the release makes it indiscernible from when he throws a fastball. One major leaguer said Hernandez's changeup was the best pitch he's ever seen because of its speed -- he threw two at 92 mph in the ninth inning Wednesday -- and depth.
Most can't even properly identify it.
"They all look like fastballs out of his hand, but it winds up being a breaking ball, or that split-finger-looking changeup -- whatever that thing is," Tampa Bay shortstop Elliot Johnson said Wednesday.
Two months earlier, San Diego's Nick Hundley had his own nomenclature issues.
"You never want to get to a point where you have to swing at his split or changeup, whatever you call it," Hundley said.
Hernandez's four-seam fastball usage has been reduced, taking with it his higher average velocity. Yet, he's producing numbers similar to or better than his 2010 Cy Young season. His strikeout rate (8.7 K/9 in 2012, 8.4 in '10), strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.95 vs. 3.31) and walk rate (2.2 vs. 2.5) are personal bests. He has done all of it for a team headed for its third consecutive last-place finish and one that might not sniff the postseason until he has long since left town.
Joe Mauer's sunbeam pure swing has led to a .448 career average and 1.308 OPS against Hernandez in 29 at-bats. Mauer's cadence makes it easy to assume he's just being polite when discussing this while walking out to the field for stretch in May before his Twins face the Mariners at Safeco Field.
"I don't know. It's just one of those things," Mauer said. "For whatever reason, I've done pretty well off him. I can't really put my finger on it."
To assure he's not just being coy, Mauer laments his lack of success against Paul Byrd. Mauer hit .167 against Byrd, a 14-year journeyman who last pitched in the majors in 2009, and is still searching for the cause. When he gets back to Hernandez, Mauer explains the problems most face with him.
"All of his stuff is above average," Mauer said. "You try to eliminate pitches and try to make a guy prove he can throw other things over for strikes, but that's what makes him so tough, is that he can throw anything at any time.
"He's probably, I would say, more dangerous than ever."
Six hours later, Mauer was in the showers with an 0-for-3 against Hernandez, who threw eight innings, allowed one hit, no runs and struck out nine Twins. He threw Mauer 13 pitches -- four changeups, three fastballs, two sinkers, two curves and two cutters -- nine of which were strikes. Hernandez has a major-league-best 10 starts this season of eight innings or more in which he's doled out one run or fewer.
In two of those outings, the victims have been the vaunted Rangers. Last season Texas bludgeoned Hernandez, leaving him 0-4 with a 5.04 ERA in four starts. This year, he's faced them twice in Safeco and allowed one run in 17 innings.
No one has seen Hernandez more than Rangers veteran Michael Young. He faced the younger Hernandez, the one with a two-pitch reliance, desperate to blow fastballs past all. Young scoffs at concern about Hernandez's reduction in velocity.
"That's kind of like saying a hitter that hits 40 homers a year, has gone from 450 feet to 425 feet every home run," Young said. "Doesn't really matter."
He also thinks Hernandez still has 96- or 97-mph fastballs lurking in his right arm, though the radar gun doesn't show them this year. Whether Hernandez does or not is of little relevance because the belief and hunt for them just gives him another point of leverage.
For all his gifts, Hernandez has won just 38 games in the past three seasons, which ranks tied for 17th in the majors. It's easy to wonder where his win total would be with another organization. The Mariners' offense has been brutally bad the past few seasons, ranking dead last in the majors in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage since 2009.
As a result, Hernandez is forced to grind out games with little run support, upping his innings total and the wear on his right arm. His propensity to go deep into games -- he's pitched seven or more innings in 18 of his 25 starts this season -- makes opposing managers fill out the lineup card differently.
"Right on right, obviously he abuses those guys," Cleveland manager Manny Acta said. "There's no need to be splitting any lefties when you know he's going to be out there for the long haul."
That leads many teams to use the same approach Tampa Bay did Wednesday: swing early, preferably at a fastball. Seattle catcher John Jaso pointed out after the perfect game that he knew the Rays' approach against Hernandez from his days playing with them and facing Felix himself. But Tampa Bay had actually revealed its strategy way back in April.
"We were just in Tampa, and second time through the order, they decided, 'We're having a tough time,' " Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said. "'We're going to come up and swing at the first pitch. We're going to get that fastball and swing at the first pitch.'
"Now, the majority of pitchers, obviously you recognize that. The majority of pitchers, they have one pitch they'll go to. OK, they're sitting first-pitch fastball, I'll start throwing my curveball. Or one guy might say, I'm going to throw my slider.
"But in Felix's case, he may throw him an 0-0 curveball, the next guy comes up, he might throw an 0-0 changeup. It's not just one, he can throw any."
That's partly what led to Wednesday's perfect result.
While Hernandez has never been a nationwide celebrity, due in part to the fact he's yet to pitch a postseason game, he is plenty popular in Seattle. He's a star in the Mariners' off-beat commercials, appearing as Larry Bernandez, his zany alter ego, who Hernandez is able to portray with skill because the characterization is not distant from the real thing.
His teammates often wear bright yellow King Felix T-shirts or the latest in Felix wear, the "Capitan Fifi" tee -- Fifi is one of his nicknames -- which has a depiction of Hernandez as Captain Morgan with his foot on a giant baseball.
During the Mariners' annual Family Day at Safeco Field, Hernandez threw pitches to other players' kids -- most on the roster didn't participate in the outing -- and was one of the first present and last to leave.
Before his outing on Father's Day, he had to be coaxed from his typical routine to see a banner behind a plane circling Safeco that read, "King 34 you are the best dad ever we [love] you." His wife, Sandra, put together the surprise, and only macho guilt kept Hernandez from shedding tears in front of his teammates.
There is still the question of how much longer those players will remain his teammates. Trading Hernandez this winter would provide whichever team lands him with two full seasons from one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. The return haul for the Mariners would be expected to move them closer to the playoffs.
If the Mariners have any future leverage to re-sign Hernandez, it could well rest in the pull of his heart. He has grown up in the Mariners' system, signing with them as a teenager from Venezuela in 2002. He has become a star with them. And, despite the team's struggles, he showed earlier this week that by making history on a beautiful afternoon in front of thousands of adoring fans, his situation in Seattle can be just about perfect.