Felix Hernandez: The Emerald City’s Hidden Gem

It was Opening Day, April 2, 2007. Wind from Puget Sound was driving the cold into the bones of everybody in the upper deck of Safeco Field. The slow-rolling roof had long since been closed, but looking out above the left field bleachers, you could see the blizzard developing. It was surreal. I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold at a baseball game. It’s also possible I’ve never cared less. I could’ve been shipwrecked in the Bering Sea, but as long as I was watching Felix Hernandez tear through the Oakland A’s it wouldn’t have mattered.

As the game went on, I became more and more impervious to the cold. Unfortunately for my friends rooting on the A’s, the day became downright icy. That enjoyably dreary Monday was the first of eight career Opening Day starts for King Felix – including seven straight from 2009-2015. Due to some odd scheduling glitches in the Bud Selig Matrix and a horrible Erik Bedard trade (Bedard started the ’08 opener), I’ve only been able to see Felix pitch on Opening Day twice. I’ve already reported on what The King did on Opening Day this year and I’d like to go back to that flurried afternoon in ’07 – and subsequently gush about the heretofore brilliance of his career.

Since I was in attendance with a few friends from Oakland, my peripheral vision was filled with forest green caps and sweatshirt hoods drawn tightly over their ears. My vision began to tunnel in and focus on what was unfolding on the mound and at the plate. I slowly began to lose the part of my hearing that tuned to Oakland fan groans and grunts.

Their disgust was well earned. Felix shook off the frigidity of the day and set a then-career-high in strikeouts with 12 – 25 percent of them looking. In eight mythical innings he allowed only six baserunners, four via hit and two by free pass. Of the four hits he allowed, three were singles and one double. Again, if memory serves with the aid of the box score, I believe that one double was the only runner to advance past first in his eight innings (bring on the fact-checkers of the Information Age! I’m mixing in Narrative History with my more direct pitches.). Beyond just statistics and wielding numbered dominance, this was truly a transcendental experience. Felix made us feel comfortable, regardless of the score; he was in the zone and his acumen on the mound sucked all possible anxiety out of the crowd. Well, maybe not for the Oakland fans in attendance. Let’s be honest, though, we don’t mind seeing them suffer once in a while here in Seattle.

Need I remind you that this was back when Felix was still six days away from legal drinking age. He was pitching with a regal fastball that sat in the mid-to-upper 90’s, with supplemental pitches comprised mostly of a hard slider and a 12-6 curveball. These were not the days of the best changeup in baseball we’ve come to know and love in recent years. As it is noted in the linked article, Felix’s changeup is unique for being very effective at producing groundouts and swinging strikes. In 2007, he didn’t feature the change as much, nor was his control as masterful as it is now. What is the point I’m driving at? Felix had to rely more on overpowering hitters back on that cutting April Monday. If you look at the table on brooksbaseball.net referenced in the previous link, you can see that Felix threw his change 9.54% of the time during the 2007 season. If you look at data from 2010 to the present, he’s throwing it slightly more than twice as often and it has gained some velocity. Thus, we could conclude – with a smear of personal, historical narrative – that Felix was working with a slightly narrower repertoire, yet was still fiercely dominant. At a certain point, even the more level-headed A’s fans had to appreciate how awesome he was. One of them may have even bowed to The King after it was all said and done. I know I certainly swore my fealty to this burgeoning icon on that day.

Yet, there is a large contingency of the fiefdoms of the baseball world who still don’t seem to recognize just how deserving he is of this adoration. I could immediately point to the fact that the Mariners play isolated from many other cities (and their fanbases) by distance. Seattle has also not produced a quality baseball product for, I’d say, 95 percent of his career. Due partially to that fact, he has pitched primarily “off Broadway” in comparison to hurlers in bigger markets, on more successful teams. Most unfortunately, though, is the fact that “fans” in Seattle don’t always know what a gift it is to be able to watch him pitch every fifth day. Recognition of just how special he is seems fleeting and scattered to the corners of baseball fanaticism.

In an effort to counteract this detraction from his rightful ascension to the throne, I’m here to sing his praises [even further]. Also, I’ll try not to overdo it on the King puns. Seriously guys, I mean it; I’m sure you’ve already had enough.

Flash forward to his 163rd career start. While the game started at 7:10 in the evening that August 10, 2010, I always remember it as a hot summer day. Yes, the sun does not set until almost 10 pm at that time of year, but, according to the gods of information at baseball-refence.com, it was a mild 67 degrees at game time. The sun, however, was surely still glancing off of the left field bleachers where I sat. By the fourth inning, Hernandez had already racked up eight strikeouts. I could smell something special in the air amidst the grilling nitrates, popcorn, and beer. In the top of the fifth, Felix got Rajai Davis and Chris Carter to strike out – looking and swinging, respectively. I turned to the guy sitting next to me, as we’d been conversing off-and-on during the game, and stated, “I think he’s gonna set a new career high tonight.” The guy’s answer made me wanna give him a knuckle sandwich or throw a slice of pizza in his mug, Fenway-style.

“A new career high in what?” displaying his ignorance shamelessly.

I was aghast, “In strikeouts for a single game, man!” I’m pretty sure I didn’t talk to that dude for the rest of the game. To this day, I meditate on that guy having to work a soul-sucking Amazon or Google job just as retribution for his baseball illiteracy. More importantly, I knew that I had achieved a new rank of baseball fanatic.

I cut my baby teeth with the likes of Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey, Jr. I had my wisdom teeth pulled – not literally, mind you – obsessing over guys like Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols, and, ultimately, Felix Abraham Garcia Hernandez. Back to that August night in 2010.

Eventually, after eight innings and 110 pitches, Felix had struck out 13 batters, walked one, and allowed only five hits. While the 2007 Opening Day start may have sounded an annunciatory shot off the bow, the 13-strikeout game was a direct hit mid-ship. And yet, I still felt like nobody heard or felt the shots. It was as historically clear, but simultaneously as shadowed as the 1967 USS Liberty incident.

We return again – ugh, it’s like beating your head against a brick wall – to the fact that Felix plays on a team usually swimming around at the bottom of the fish tank. It’s understandable, even in the Information Age, that players on middling-to-crappy teams get overlooked. I just don’t like it and I’m not gonna shut my mouth about it.

So, what more convincing do you need, world? How about the 23rd perfect game in Major League history. You know, just your average 113-pitch, 12-strikeout masterpiece. Peruse the game log and then watch and enjoy, knowing that it was rightly Felix to be the first Seattle Mariner to throw a perfect game.

Sure, that perfect game came against the Tampa Bay Rays, who, for a stretch of a few years seemed to get no-hit or perfect-gamed once a month or so. But a perfect game is a perfect game. In fact, with the over-specialization of pitching roles and bullpens and match-ups, a perfect game might mean more now, regardless of it coming against the Rays. A Rays team that went 90-72 that year, in case you missed that little nugget of information.

Speaking of information, let’s throw some numbers at the wall and see what sticks for ya, shall we folks? How about we reinforce how good Felix is despite playing on a Mariners team that has produced exactly three winning seasons in his entire career (none of which made the playoffs). Since 2010, he has been the team leader in WAR four times. I’d say, that’s pretty impressive for a pitcher.

In 2010 he won his only – so far, I presume – Cy Young Award, pitching on a tightrope due to the fact that he received the fourth-worst run support of any pitcher in baseball that year (3.06 runs per game). That Cy Young was a victory for the sabermetric community in a sense. Felix had a very modest win-loss record of 13-12 that year and yet he still won the award. That run support has rarely been there. For his career he has only gathered 4+ runs of support per game in just five seasons. Could that have anything to do with his staggering number of no-decisions? In 308 career games as a starting pitcher, The King hath received no tribute – in the form of a no-decision – eighty-seven times!! I’m willing to put money down that you didn’t know he has a golden ERA of 2.67 in those 87 games. That’s a 0.38 dip from his career 3.05 ERA – a number well validated by a career FIP of 3.13.

Do you recall his mid-to-late season brilliance last year? From May 18 to August 11, he spun 16 consecutive starts of seven or more innings while allowing two or fewer runs. Tom Seaver held the previous such record at 13 straight. I remember watching part of a San Francisco Giants game during that stretch for Felix and Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper were interviewing Tom Terrific. You know what they were talking about? The bleeping wine that Seaver makes from his vineyards just north of San Fran!!! You gotta be kidding me; it was a load of bull. Luckily, the world also has smart and aware folks in it, like the people at Ace of MLB Stats. After Felix threw his tenth career shutout – tied for most by a Venezuelan-born pitcher with Johan Santana – those wizards posted this:

What you might not immediately recognize is that those last 29 starts began on May 18, 2014. More succinctly, the beginning of that streak that culminated in the thrilling discussion of wine that might possibly be sold at Trader Joe’s.

I bet Kruk, Kuip and Tommy Terrific also don’t know that from 2009-2014, Felix is the only pitcher in baseball history with 200-plus strikeouts and 75 or fewer walks in six consecutive seasons. But I guess you have to play in New York or make wine to be worthy.

For my last scathing, yet slightly comedic salvo, let’s get back to Seattle; I don’t really need to pick a ruckus with Kruk & Kuip, they’re good guys. Seattle fans, if that’s what we call ourselves anymore (well, I do, but I’m pretty self-important), we need to pack Safeco Field every single time Felix is pitching. We need to show that we truly appreciate what a glorious and benevolent ruler he is. More importantly, we need to be parsimonious in our display of understanding what an amazing pitcher Felix is. So, in a city experiencing the most insane population boom ever, it shouldn’t be difficult to fill every last one of those 47,574 seats.

That way, the next time Felix spins a scintillating Opening Day start, or perhaps a no-hitter, or even better, another perfect game, there won’t be only 21,889 butts in the seats. Yeah folks, that was the official attendance that day.

If you’re in Anaheim this evening, go see one of the best in King Felix.

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