- After enduring another shellacking this week, Félix Hernández is headed to the bullpen, further proof that stardom is fleeting.
The next time Félix Hernández takes the mound for the Mariners, it likely won’t be as a starter. Following a disastrous outing against the Rangers on Tuesday and amid the worst season of his 14-year career, the 32-year-old Hernández is out of Seattle’s rotation, manager Scott Servais announced Thursday night. The man who was once King Félix has been deposed—and there isn’t much to suggest he has what it takes to re-claim his crown.
Hernández’s last start was an abject disaster. The righty retired the first six batters he faced—including long-time frenemy Adrian Beltre on a wicked curveball that left Hernández doubled over laughing on the mound—but fell apart in the third inning, allowing four runs on a walk, four hits, and an RBI groundout. Another run crossed the plate in the fourth, then came the big blow in the fifth: a grand slam off the bat of Jurickson Profar.
Despite his struggles, Hernández returned for the sixth to relieve an overworked bullpen. He surrendered two more runs in that frame on a pair of solo home runs—one by Beltre, who got the last laugh—before departing for the evening. His final line: six innings, eight hits (including three homers), 11 runs allowed (seven earned), four walks, and just two strikeouts. Of his 90 offerings, he got only three swings and misses.
Amazingly, Wednesday’s start wasn’t even Hernández’s worst of the season. On April 4, he gave up eight runs on six hits (including three homers) and five walks with only one strikeout in four innings against the Giants. And on July 28, he was battered for seven runs in 2 2/3 innings of work versus the Angels. There have been a few vintage King Félix starts scattered amidst the carnage, but the overall numbers are ugly: a 5.73 ERA and 70 ERA+ in 124 innings. The former would be his highest mark since his 2006 season, when he was 20, by more than a run; the latter would be his worst since last year’s so-so 96.
Those aren’t the only numbers going the wrong way for Hernández. His strikeout rate of 17.9% is his worst ever; his 8.3% walk rate is his third-highest; and his home-run-per-nine rate of 1.45 trails only last year’s abysmal 1.77. His ground-ball rate has plummeted to 45%—his career rate is 53.4%—and his hard-hit rate is 39.6%, 10th highest among all qualified starters this year. His average fastball velocity, which has steadily tumbled over the last decade, now sits below 90 mph at 89.2. Unsurprisingly, batters are hitting .292 with a .500 slugging percentage on that superannuated four-seamer.
Hernández has tried to compensate for his fastball’s demise by throwing more sinkers, but hitters have been all over that pitch, with a .342 batting average and .579 slugging percentage against. But regardless of what Hernández throws, batters aren’t fooled: His 8.4% swinging-strike rate is the lowest mark of his career.
Put it all together, and you have arguably the worst starter in the majors. Only control-challenged White Sox righty Lucas Giolito has a higher ERA and lower ERA+, and no starter has been worth less by bWAR (-1.4) than Hernández. (By fWAR, he beats out only Giolito, Julio Teheran and Jake Junis.) Despite Seattle’s paper-thin rotation, it’s easy to understand why the team has pulled the plug, even if it feels inconceivable, given that this is Félix Hernández we’re talking about.
For close to a decade, Hernández was the brightest light in the Pacific Northwest. From 2007 through ’15, he was untouchable, with a 3.00 ERA and 131 ERA+ over nearly 2,000 innings of work. That run included six All-Star selections, two ERA titles (MLB’s in 2010 and the American League’s in ’14) and his crowning achievement: the 2010 AL Cy Young, which he won with a 2.27 ERA and 232 strikeouts in 249 2/3 innings.
But more than that, Hernández was an event. One of the best and smartest promotions any baseball team has done in the last decade was Seattle’s King’s Court—a special section of seats down Safeco Field’s leftfield line that was a Félix-themed rooting section on the days of his starts. (Bizarre as it is to write “was” for a player who’s still on the team and alive, past tense is the only way to refer to that section, given that he won’t be starting again for the foreseeable future—optimistic “TBD” or not.)
In the King’s Court or not, though, every fifth day for Mariners fans was special during Hernández’s reign. He was the best thing about some truly dismal clubs: The year he won the Cy Young, Seattle lost 101 games, and he finished with just 13 victories himself. Fans that season were subjected to hundreds upon hundreds of awful plate appearances from Chone Figgins and Josh Wilson and Casey Kotchman and whatever Adam Moore was, while non-Félix starts were given to career mediocrities like Jason Vargas and Doug Fister. But at least they had Hernández, who toiled and grinded for teams that were miles beneath him.
But all those innings—2,626 1/3 to date despite Hernández being just 32—have seemingly caught up to the king. And therein lies the tragedy of his downfall: that it comes right as the Mariners are finally contending again. Since debuting in 2005, Hernández has never made the playoffs, dropped as he was into a postseason drought that’s now 16 years and counting. Most years, he’s never even gotten close to October: Seattle’s finished higher than third in the AL West just twice in the last 14 years. But this year, the M’s are firmly in the race, trailing the A’s for the second wild card by just 2 ½ games (admittedly after blowing a massive lead over Oakland for that spot).
The Promised Land is in sight for Hernández, but even if Seattle does get there, it’ll do so dragging him along, not with him leading the way as we all once thought. It’s hard to imagine, barring a miraculous conversion in the bullpen, Hernández re-emerging as a dominant force this season. And even if the Mariners make the wild-card game, it’s easy to envision a postseason roster without his name.
The 2018 season, then, may well churn on without Hernández—or, even worse, with him popping up randomly as a long reliever, tasked with mopping up blowouts or eating innings in extras. That’s no way for a man of his stature to live, but it’s what the future holds for now. (And perhaps beyond, as he still has one year left on his contract at a staggering $27.8 million.) Maybe there’s better for Hernández on the horizon, or maybe this is truly the end. But if it’s the latter, let’s acknowledge how lucky we were to see him pitch, and how great he was. The King is dead; long live the King.