Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez moved to bullpen

Felix Hernandez is headed for the bullpen. Is it truly the end of an era?

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(Photo Credit: Keith Allison)

Since he made his MLB debut on August 5, 2005, every one of Felix Hernandez’s appearances—398 of them—have been starts. That will change the next time he pitches.

Today, the Mariners confirmed that they will move Hernandez to the bullpen. The move comes after what may have been the poorest start of the poorest season to date in Hernandez’s career.

Despite the accolades he’s accrued throughout his sparkling career (six All-Star appearances, the 2010 AL Cy Young Award and three other top-four finishes in Cy Young voting) Hernandez has become a liability to the Mariners, who are struggling to keep pace with the Oakland Athletics in the race for the second AL Wild Card spot.

What’s gone wrong with Hernandez? Is this the end for one of the era’s most dominant pitchers? Can King Felix bounce back and regain his throne? Let’s look at all sides of the picture.

Serious decline

Hernandez is only 32 which, in the post-steroid era, is a time when elite pitchers begin trending downward but rarely struggle the way he has. Hernandez’s numbers this year are almost unthinkably bad for someone who’s pitched at his level for so long: 8-10 with a career-worst 5.73 ERA in 23 starts. He sports a 1.43 WHIP, and his K/9 has dropped by almost a full strikeout from last year.

The main factor in these struggles is almost certainly the loss of velocity.

Hernandez has never had Noah Syndergaard-type heat, but he came into the league throwing 94, which at the time was up there for a starter. But this season his average fastball velocity has dropped below 90. His slider, which hovered in the mid-80s for much of his career, has dropped to about 82.

Hernandez is allowing more hits per nine innings (9.7) than he has in 11 years. He’s also allowing more hard contact (as described by FanGraphs) than he has in his entire career—39.5%, as opposed to 30.7% last year and 25% during his 2009-2012 peak. His soft contact percentage this year (15.6%) is his lowest since 2012. Opponents are hitting .296 on his pitches.

Hernandez has also seen a spike in his walk rate from last season. His BB/9 and K/BB ratios are actually better this season when they were two years ago, but with the amount of hard contact he’s allowing, any free passes are that much more likely to turn into runs.

Long live the King?

If it’s surprising to see a pitcher Hernandez’s age to hit the skids so hard, remember he’s been doing this for a really long time. Hernandez was 19 years and 118 days old when he debuted back in ’05. He was the first teenager to throw a pitch in the majors since Todd Van Poppel in 1991 and was the youngest to start a major league game since Jose Rijo in 1984.

He also has a ton of mileage on his arm. He pitched 200 or more innings every year from 2008 to 2015, averaging 225 per season and topping out at 249.2 during his Cy Young season in 2010. He threw 22 complete games in that span and threw 27,240 pitches.

At 32, he carries the workload of a pitcher several years older than him. It’s also not like there haven’t been signs—he only made 16 starts in 2016 and 23 last year as he dropped from his peak. The recovery he seemed to make last season now looks increasingly like one last hurrah.

As bad as things look, a comeback is not out of the realm of possibility. Justin Verlander was roughly the same age when a sub-par season saw many wonder whether his career was winding down. His velocity was down and his shoulder was hurting him, but after that season he discovered he simply wasn’t as physically fit as he could have been. As detailed in a piece from Bleacher Report, he worked with a physical therapist, got into better shape, and is pitching as well as he did in his prime. Fitness has never been one of Hernandez’s strong suits—he famously arrived out of shape for Spring Training going into his first full year in the bigs—and it’s possible he’s suffering a similar problem that Verlander had four years ago.

Hernandez is also one of the few players in the Mariners’ locker room that has shunned the more analytical approach of general manager Jerry Dipoto, sticking with his old-school preparation methods. The new approach has coaxed career years out of journeymen like Wade LeBlanc, so perhaps more flexibility could allow him to fix a problem or two.

But that’s casting into the future. The numbers speak for themselves now: Hernandez is a drag on this team and putting him in the bullpen is their only option. Unless he can change something, or someone gets hurt (or both) it looks like King Felix’s dream of starting a playoff game may be over for good.

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