“I hate to say it, but I think Felix is going to get shelled.”
There was a part of me that agreed with my friend Mark as we stood in line at a hotdog stand outside Safeco Field. In the last two seasons, Felix Hernandez had started only 41 games and only 17 of those were wins. He hadn’t been him. There were glimpses, but the velocity on his fastball had dropped and he wasn’t blowing the ball past opponents anymore. He’d fallen apart too often in the early innings. He had injuries. It was the same crap experiment with the same botched results. Still, I wanted to wait and see.
Despite a come-backer abridging his Spring Training schedule, The King looked good on the mound. Mariner’s manager, Scott Servais and pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre showed genuine excitement after his bullpens and last start before the regular season. I had to believe that if they were confident giving Felix the ball to compete in his 10th straight Opening Day game—which now puts him in a 4-way tie alongside 3 hall-of-famers for 3rd most consecutive OD starts by a pitcher—I had to believe he was ready.
Days before, in an interview with Mariners beat reporter, Shannon Dreyer, Stottlemyre professed that Felix is buying into the fact that he needs to change his game if he wants to be competitive.
“Anytime somebody’s been able to impact a game and be as big a part of the game as he has, and have to do something different, it requires a mindset. And sometimes it takes longer for some guys than it does others. And it’s taken a while for him to buy into the fact that, ‘I need to pitch to contact, I need to get in good counts, I have weapons to get the ball on the ground, I need to do that early and not try to wipe guys out early in counts.’ And he turns that dial-up sometimes too early when he doesn’t have to; it gets him in trouble. And so we’ve asked him to be a little more efficient, pitch a little more to contact, and he has those weapons to do it.”
Last night, Felix was fired up. Pitching in front of a record sell-out crowd of 47,149 Felix set out on an atypical outing, an outing full of dipping, swerving and diving pitches that crossed the plate with tremendously effective results. According to Fangraph, 28% of his pitches were curveballs, and I can attest from keeping track of the stadium radar screen, they varied in speed from 83 mph to 71 mph. 22% of the time, he threw his changeup, which reacts by dropping in the final third of its orbit as if it were made of metal and home plate an industrial magnet. Whiff.
To compare, but keep in mind this is one outing being applied to previous years, 28% is the highest percentage he’s thrown his curve, and 2%, which was how often he threw his slider last night, his lowest. Interestingly, his fastball percentage was slightly higher than in the previous couple years, at 47.6%. Though his fastball has proved to be less effective since it’s decline in velocity (say roughly since 2014) pairing them in between his off-speed pitches and stepping them up in the zone late into counts kept the Cleveland offense on their heels.
Since this was just one game, these numbers don’t mean anything too significant. However, the higher frequency of his curve and speed variation played a big part in last night’s win, as did the lack of hard contact (7.7%) the Cleveland offense was able to put on the ball, and of course, Nelson Cruz’s two-run moonshot to center field. The Safe was electric as fans were cheering on Felix like I hadn’t seen in a good while. You could tell he was into it—the crowds energy pulsing through his veins.
“That’s the kind of guy I am,” he said. “I like to compete, I like the big stage, I like the highlights and stuff like that. As soon as I walked from the dugout to the mound, it was electric. It was awesome. You have to do good, man. You have the fans behind you, they support you, so you have to go out and compete.”
Compete he did.
“I thought he was going to get shelled,” Mark said, shortly after The King passed his pitch count and was replaced after 5.1 innings of work; delivering four strikeouts and surrendering only two hits with no runs. How could he not have been worried? It’s been rough watching Felix struggle the past two seasons; and after just 8-innings of work in Spring Training, despite what the managers thought it was easy to question if Felix was ready.
Much of the media chatter heading into OD had backed the pessimistic view that the Mariners capture the essence of mediocrity. Last season was a disaster highlighted by injury after injury and the 16-year drought without a postseason berth has been brought to the fore with the Mariners becoming the team with the longest drought among all major sports teams in America. That the Mariners did little to respond to the public’s outcry to bring better starting pitching into the rotation exacerbated doubts and gave fans and media sources alike cause to complain.
In all likelihood, the sadness, anger, and doubt will be justified come September. But, last night was a rebuttal from the organization, an unrequited gesture to the scarred and cagy fan that they’re better than what the projections report. But, professing you’ve changed after one good outing isn’t enough. Only time will tell. However, thanks to Felix’s outstanding Opening Day performance, people are watching and waiting to see. The door is ajar.