Its June 17th, 2008 the Mariners are set to do battle with the then Florida Marlins at what was then called Safeco Field. The temperature is about 50 degrees at 7:10 PM’s first pitch. The Marlins come in with a 38-33 record, while the Mariners record stands at 25-46 to this point. Felix Hernandez will be on the mound for the M’s and comes into the night with a 5-5 Win-Loss record and a 2.81 ERA, everything seems par for the course, right?
Then the top of the fourth inning happened and the night went from ordinary to historical. With the Mariners ahead 2-1 Felix took the mound to face Jeremy Hermedia, Jorge Cantu and Mike Jacobs. Hermedia steps into the box, he takes a first-pitch fastball for a strike on the inside corner, then he watches a changeup down the middle for strike two. Hermedia always liked to let it rip and on the third pitch of the at-bat he did just that. He wildly missed on a Felix curve.
Next up, Jorge Cantu who Felix knew had trouble laying off fastballs, first pitch a belt-high fastball 97 mph right in on the hands and looked at for strike one. Second pitch yet another fastball at 97, same location. Cantu had to give it a shot and he was way behind on his swing. The third pitch was a classic high cheese fastball at 95, Cantu was slightly behind it, but he had zero chance of contact based on the placement of the pitch.
Mike Jacobs comes to the plate last; first pitch is a beautiful curve that Mike watched as it went in Kenji Johjima’s glove for strike one. The second pitch was a fastball that was perfectly placed away from Jacobs, swing and a miss for strike two. The third pitch was a curve that was thrown just slightly inside where no human could have gotten a hold of it, called strike three.
An immaculate inning had just taken place for Felix and the Mariners. For those who don’t know that is three batters faced, nine pitches thrown, to strike out the side. It has only happened 89 times in MLB history to this point and only once by a Mariner. This was the singular event I look to when I think of the rise of Felix Hernandez.
When it comes to a Mariner pitching an immaculate inning, who else but Felix? We may not have known it that night back in 2008, but we know now he was a special player. Not many who have ever played the game from the mound can rationally compare their careers with King Felix. He currently holds all the Mariners career starting pitching records worth mentioning; Wins at 168, ERA at 3.32, Strikeouts at 2,439, innings pitched with 2,620 and starts at 397. He has pitched a perfect game, won a Cy Young award, pitched in six All-Star games, made 10 consecutive opening day starts for the team, won 57% of his starts despite playing for a team that has only had a winning record in only five of his seasons with the M’s.
He chose to stay in Seattle because he loved us when he could have bolted for more money and a chance at the playoffs. For the Mariners Hall of Fame, he is a shoe in. There is really no question about it, he has had the best career of anyone to ever take the mound as a Seattle Mariner.
The traditional measurables
When it comes to having what it takes to make it to Cooperstown, things get more complicated for the King. When it comes time to vote for the Hall of Fame, traditionally it’s been all about the standard statistics.
The strongest standard statistic he owns are his strikeouts, where he is currently 37th all time. At 2,639 K’s the only players ahead of him not currently in the Cooperstown would be Rodger Clemens, Curt Schilling, C.C. Sabathia, and Mickey Lolich. We know why Schilling and Clemons are not in (steroids and gruffness with the media). While Felix was never a social butterfly with the media, most of it stemmed from the fact English was not his first language. It was never because he was at odds with reporters the way Clemons or Schilling were at times. C.C. Sabathia most likely will be inducted within the next decade, as he just announced his retirement this offseason. To me it seems Mickey Lolich has been overlooked, perhaps a victim of playing in Detroit, many have pointed to his never winning a Cy Young as the reason for his snub.
Felix currently sits directly behind Nolan Ryan with a career ERA of 3.20, that’s certainly good enough for the HOF. During a ten year stretch of dominance from 2007-2016 Felix never had an ERA over 3.92. Not too many pitchers out there can say they have put a stretch like that together.
Most who can are already in Cooperstown.
For a pitcher from his era, he is among the leaders in innings pitched. For eight consecutive seasons, he pitched over 200 innings per season. Unfortunately, this is partially to blame for his drop-off in recent years. He played his prime during a time when the old standard of innings was upheld, while the average fastball was in the mid 90’s. Most pitchers of his generation hit a wall at some point in their careers and had to adjust the way they attacked a hitter. Or they completely fell off of a cliff.
Felix has yet to determine where he will fall.
The book hasn’t closed on Felix. Today’s generation of starting pitchers are throwing fewer and fewer innings each year. In 1998 a total of 56 pitchers pitched over 200 innings, flash forward to 2008 and 33 pitchers pitched over 200 innings. Finally, in 2018, and only 12 pitchers crossed the 200-inning barrier. Ten years from now my guess is nobody will pitch over 200 innings. It just isn’t realistic to think an arm can hold up for the long haul throwing 100mph fastballs for 200 plus innings year after year.
Lastly, let’s address the win total of Felix Hernandez at 168. It is not above the old standard of 200 victories. Then again not many guys who pitched in his era are, only Bartolo Colon, C.C. Sabathia, Tim Hudson, Mark Buehrle, Roy Halladay, and Tim Wakefield have been able to accomplish that milestone during his time in baseball. Of active players, Felix is ranked number four behind Justin Verlander, Zach Greinke, and Jon Lester. Again, Felix has only played on five teams who finished above .500. You really should have to add a couple of wins to each season total during his ten–year stretch of dominance just to even the playing field. There was a time when wins meant everything and they still are a good measure however, with advanced statistics today we don’t have to rely almost exclusively on wins. Felix already helped prove that when he was awarded the AL Cy Young award in 2014 when he finished eighth in win total yet finished 1st in votes. That would have been unthinkable in yesteryear, yet he was clearly the most deserving of the award.
When it comes to traditional measures, I think Felix holds up. He mustered 168 wins while playing for a perennial loser. Factor in his strikeout numbers and his ERA. It may help him get the nod into baseball immortality.
New school statistics
Let’s now assume that by the time Felix is eligible, sabermetrics will be widely accepted. Voters will rely on them for debating and discussing who deserves and who doesn’t deserve admission to the Hall. This is already happening, but the natural progression of things says it will advance more so in this direction as time goes along. These statistics are good at determining what a player does well and not so well.
They are not everything in determining a player’s worth.
My absolute favorite of these new statistics is WAR or Wins Above Replacement. Which attempts to determine how many wins a player’s total contributions are worth to their team vs an average replacement. Felix is currently at 51.0 WAR or 99th All-Time in WAR for Pitchers. This places him slightly below such names as Orel Hershiser, Max Scherzer and Sandy Koufax. While slightly above Kenny Rodgers, Johan Santana, Mark Langston, Jamie Moyer, and Doc Gooden, pitchers who had very good careers, but probably not HOF caliber ones. It is worth mentioning he fares better in WAR than John Lester who figures to have a decent chance at the hall based on his performance for WS winning teams.
Another stat I like using for pitchers is the strikeout to walk ratio or K/BB. Nothing shuts an offense down like being struck out by the opposing pitcher. Also, by the same token, nothing jump-starts an offense in baseball like giving a free pass. Combining these two things that help determine the value of a pitcher. Felix is ranked 50th on this career list. While he had ridiculous velocity early in his career. He also always had the ability to paint the corners with his control. Watching him pitch was like watching an artist paint. When he is on he seems to be able to place the ball exactly where he wants to, while maintaining the movement and velocity that set many of his pitches apart from those same pitches from his contemporaries.
In strikeouts per nine innings, Felix is 39th All-Time. This is a statistic that favors the pitchers of this era over those from baseballs golden era. To give you an idea, Chris Sale is the All-Time leader in this category. While I appreciate Chris Sale and would never want to step in the box against him. I’m not putting him 121 spots above Bob Gibson on any rational list of great pitchers. Statistics are a tool, not the end all or be all.
I would venture to say sabermetrics do not improve Felix’s chances for the Hall. As most of his contemporaries fared as well in these newer statistics as he did if not better. This may not help the King receive baseball’s ultimate crown. Although, analytics can be used to show what he had to overcome to achieve the success he has had. They show that Felix has received 0-2 runs in over 34% of his starts in his career. That is around 10% higher than average for players who played in the same era as he did.
What separates Felix?
To me what makes Felix great can’t be measured by a statistic, it’s not going to fit nicely into a box score and pointed out for all to clearly see. His statistics are not too shabby, they clearly show he had two or three great seasons and a handful of very good ones. It wasn’t his four seamer, curveball or changeup that made opposing hitters fear him. What made him special was his ability to dig deep inside of himself and put it all out on the table in the moment his team needed him the most. How many times did we see him give up an early run or two and then proceed to shut down the opposition for six, seven or even eight innings afterwards. He reveled under the pressure that a subpar franchise at the time could give him. He was able to deliver, at least on his end, time and time again. There should be a statistic to show one’s competitive drive. If you come up with one, get a patent for its formula ASAP.
I consider this group of pitchers to be his peers. Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber. While I cannot argue that Felix has the best numbers of the group, or the most playoff appearances or clutch performances. I can say that if I had to choose one of them for an elimination game, give me Felix. When the spotlight was on him and you needed him to carry the Mariners, he always brought his game to another level. His pride, determination and ability would all allow him to compete and usually dominate no matter who his opponent was.
Even today when I watch him, and we can clearly see that the velocity has faded. There are moments I still see the thing that makes Felix great. He can no longer reach into his tool box and pull out the best pitches in the game. His fastball isn’t ever going to be clocked at 100 mph again. Yet, he still has moments that make you want to stand up and cheer him on for showing the guts of a champion. His style on the mound of not being afraid to show his emotions made him loveable. Several nights I watched him strike out the last batter of the eighth and pump his fist into the glove and let out a scream. Never mind that we were down 2-1 and already mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. We wanted him to come back out for the ninth, just not as bad as he wanted it himself. His heart is that of a lion, he would have gone another three innings on pure fumes and our appreciation. I wish there was a statistic to measure that in someone.
When it comes to the “it” factor, Felix Hernandez has that in spades.
Does Felix have enough to get in?
When it comes to accomplishments, King Felix has achieved more than some who are already in Cooperstown. Statistically, I think he could use a few more decent years to reach a few more milestones. If his career does end sooner than he would like it to, his ten-year stretch does match up well or trump several current HOF’ers.
His career may not wow people who value the newer sabermetrics more than anything else and so be it. His strength was bringing that fighters spirit to the mound, even when his team didn’t have a punchers chance. He had the ability to turn an ordinary night into an extraordinary one just by the way he pitched. Isn’t that the type of player Cooperstown was built to acknowledge? To me Felix has a first ballot type of career, I was one of the lucky ones who watched most of his starts. The majority of people who decide these things were not so lucky. It may take him longer than it should and there is a possibility that he never gets into the Hall of Fame. In this case, he will be a legend for Mariners fans to discuss for years to come. When we look back twenty years from now, we will refer to his era as the dark ages. Felix was the lone bright spot for us to enjoy.