Félix Hernández and the Rocky Road to Cooperstown

Baseball News
3 weeks ago

Wearing his emotions on his sleeve start to finish — from the moment that he walked through the bullpen door to chants of “Let’s go, Félix!” to his own tearful salute to the fans upon being pulled with one out in the sixth inning — on Thursday night at T-Mobile Park in Seattle, Félix Hernández made the 418th and likely final start of his 15-year run with the Mariners. He tipped his cap to the King’s Court upon entering, fell behind early while struggling with his command and control, strutted a bit after a strikeout, exulted in Dylan Moore’s spectacular, run-saving catch to end the fifth inning, competed like hell with a tenacity that far outstripped his stuff, and then bowed to the frenzied crowd of 20,921 before exiting the field. Some 2,800 miles way in Brooklyn, watching the outing on my office TV as I pecked out an article full of objective measures regarding his place in history, I struggled to keep it together. I can only imagine how Mariners fans felt.

It’s an understatement to say that the parting of Hernández — whose seven-year, $175 million contract has run its course — and the rebuilding Mariners is a bittersweet moment for the pitcher, the team, and their long-suffering fans, or fans of great baseball players in general. There’s certainly plenty of reason to ponder the peaks of his run and recall the good times, the hopes he represented as a teenaged arrival on a team whose championship aspirations had been so often thwarted. His dazzling combination of an electrifying, darting sinker, a knee-buckling curve, and a signature hard changeup propelled him to a Cy Young award, two ERA titles, six All-Star appearances, a perfect game, and 2,524 strikeouts. He arrived as “King Félix,” and grew into the moniker. From 2009-14, he was the best pitcher in the American League by ERA, FIP, strikeouts, and WAR.

For as cool as all of that was, the reality is that this sendoff is as much about Hernández’s decline as his stardom, and the ache and sorrow over close calls and missed opportunities that have deprived him of a chance to test his mettle in the postseason. He’s no Ernie Banks, hanging around into his 40s in a reduced role at a new position. This parting is all happening more than six months before the pitcher’s 34th birthday, an age when he should still be a productive major leaguer if not necessarily one at the pinnacle of his career. Perhaps he still can be, but his recent performance doesn’t suggest it, not with a season ERA that has almost literally tripled since 2014, when he netted his second ERA title and finished as the runner-up in the AL Cy Young voting for a second time. For the first 12 years of his career, he was clearly on a Cooperstown-bound path, but there’s little to indicate he can continue traveling that road.

The rare 21st century pitcher to debut before his 20th birthday — Dylan Bundy, Elvis Luciano, and Julio Urías are the others — Hernández got an early start towards stardom. While pitchers who debut at that tender age have a leg up when it comes to reaching the Hall of Fame just as their position-playing counterparts do, the effect is not as great. I noted in connection with Ronald Acuña Jr.’s debut last year that 25 of the 244 players who had at least one plate appearance in their age-19 seasons (10.2%) wound up in Cooperstown, about 8.7 times the overall rate (1.18%). For pitchers active in their age-19 seasons, the total is 17 (not counting Babe Ruth, who converted to position playing) out of 296 (5.7%), about 4.9 times the overall rate. It’s a reasonable assumption that the difference between the two rates owes a fair bit to some combination of injury rates and workloads as they relate to young pitchers, but that’s a question for another day.

Without question, some combo of injuries, workload, lackluster conditioning and a stubborn resistance to adjustments has caught up to Hernández. Thursday night’s start was just his 15th this season, and his 59th of the past three, a stretch bookended by shoulder woes (bursitis and impingement in 2017, a lat strain this year), with back and hamstring issues in there to boot. Over that three-year span, he owns a 5.42 ERA, 5.32 FIP, and 0.5 WAR by our measures (-1.2 by those of Baseball-Reference); this year, it’s a 6.40 ERA and 6.01 FIP, with -0.1 fWAR and -0.5 bWAR. Just three of this year’s 15 starts were quality starts. There’s no hiding from those grim numbers.

Per Pitch Info, Hernández’s average sinker velocity has plummeted from 95.0 mph in 2008 to 92.2 mph in 2015 to 90.0 mph this year; the decline is slightly larger for his less-used four-seamer (from 96.0 to 92.8 to 90.4 in that same timeframe). Nearly a decade ago, he compensated for that velocity decline with increased usage of his curve and changeup, and it worked for a good while, but the returns have diminished.

Unlike CC Sabathia, a contemporary former Cy Young winner who was similarly worked hard in his 20s (more on which momentarily), Hernández has not continued to adapt to compensate for waning velocity by integrating a new pitch, or devoting himself to keeping in better shape. Hence the encomiums for his career seem to be arriving about five or 10 years ahead of schedule.

How hard was Hernández worked? Harder than any young pitcher in a quarter century:

Most Innings Through Age 29 Since 1973
Rk Pitcher IP Years Age IP Years Age
1 Fernando Valenzuela 2348.2 1980-1990 19-29 581.1 1991-1997 30-36
2 Félix Hernández 2262.1 2005-2015 19-29 462.0 2016-2019 30-33
3 Dwight Gooden 2169.2 1984-1994 19-29 631.0 1996-2000 31-35
4 CC Sabathia 2127.0 2001-2010 20-29 1450.1 2011-2019 30-38
5 Dennis Eckersley 2125.2 1975-1984 20-29 1160.0 1985-1998 30-43
6 Greg Maddux 2120.2 1986-1995 20-29 2887.2 1996-2008 30-42
7 Frank Tanana 2110.1 1973-1983 19-29 2078.0 1984-1993 30-39
8 Mike Witt 2062.0 1981-1990 20-29 46.1 1991-1993 30-32
9 Dave Stieb 2044.0 1979-1987 21-29 851.1 1988-1998 30-40
10 Roger Clemens 2031.0 1984-1992 21-29 2885.2 1993-2007 30-44
11 Clayton Kershaw 1935.0 2008-2017 20-29 332.2 2018-2019 30-31
12 Bret Saberhagen 1897.1 1984-1993 20-29 665.1 1994-2001 30-37
13 Rick Porcello 1863.0 2009-2018 20-29 174.1 2019-2019 30-30
14 Frank Viola 1858.0 1982-1989 22-29 978.1 1990-1996 30-36
15 Mark Buehrle 1847.2 2000-2008 21-29 1435.2 2009-2015 30-36
16 Madison Bumgarner 1846.0 2009-2019 19-29
17 Javier Vazquez 1845.2 1998-2006 21-29 994.1 2007-2011 30-34
18 Jon Garland 1829.1 2000-2009 20-29 322.0 2010-2013 30-33
19 Matt Cain 1811.1 2005-2014 20-29 274.1 2015-2017 30-32
20 John Smoltz 1804.1 1988-1996 21-29 1668.2 1997-2009 30-42
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Yellow = active

Forget every other measure of performance, that might be enough to tell his story right there. I don’t say that simply to indict the Mariners for how they handled him; he never threw more than 128 pitches in a game, went to 120 or higher only 12 times, just two of which were before he turned 24. But as you can see from the table above, in the era of the designated hitter, it’s been rare for a pitcher who threw 1,800 innings before his 30th birthday to stick around for another decade. We know Sabathia is retiring at the end of this season, and that the final chapter has yet to be written for the other four active pitchers above, Hernández included. The rest averaged 1,164 innings, but that total is skewed by the top three from the set, Maddux, Clemens, and Tanana. Smoltz, who took a four-year detour to the bullpen after undergoing Tommy John surgery, is the only other pitcher within 600 innings of Tanana. Eight of the 15 whose careers are over didn’t reach 3,000 total innings, a level below which it’s very difficult for a modern pitcher to gain Hall of Fame consideration. Of the 65 enshrined starters, only 12 are short of that number; in reverse chronological order, the last three from that group to throw a pitch in the majors were Roy Halladay, Pedro Martinez, and Sandy Koufax, who retired after the 1966 season.

In one of the first pieces I wrote here upon joining the staff of FanGraphs, I mused on Hernández’s Hall of Fame chances, wondering if he could regain his momentum after two spotty seasons. At this writing, he hasn’t even come close to replicating his mediocre 2016 season, which was shortened to 25 starts by a right calf strain, let alone what came before it. But even given the pitfalls of workload suggested by the above table, he appeared quite likely to reach the Hall of Fame. Towards that end, I went through his career year by year, using the Baseball-Reference Play Index to determine his age-based standing in three statistical categories that have a bearing on Hall voting, namely wins (yawn, but relevant to voting history), strikeouts, and WAR, in this case bWAR. I took note of his rankings first among all pitchers since the start of the 1901 season — throwing out the 19th century guys who piled up 500 innings in some seasons — and then relative to the Hall of Famers from that group, a subset of 58 pitchers. First, here’s the table:

Félix Hernández Rankings by Age
Year Age Wins All Rk Hall Rk K All Rk Hall Rk WAR All Rk Hall Rk
2005 19 4 38 9 77 22 7 2.8 9 3
2006 20 16 25 11 253 9 4 4.1 23 8
2007 21 30 20 8 418 10 3 8.0 21 8
2008 22 39 35 11 593 11 7 12.0 18 8
2009 23 58 25 11 810 12 6 17.9 15 8
2010 24 71 25 12 1042 8 5 25.1 11 8
2011 25 85 31 15 1264 6 3 28.6 18 9
2012 26 98 31 14 1487 5 3 33.9 16 10
2013 27 110 35 18 1703 6 4 39.1 17 11
2014 28 125 35 19 1951 4 3 45.5 13 10
2015 29 143 31 19 2142 4 3 50.0 15 12
2016 30 154 33 21 2264 8 6 51.4 15 13
2017 31 160 42 24 2342 9 7 52.1 20 16
2018 32 168 48 26 2467 7 7 50.9 28 22
2019 33 169 73 35 2524 8 6 50.1 43 29
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Rankings are among all pitchers since 1901, including 58 Hall of Fame starting pitchers

That’s a lot to take in. Note that for the Hall of Fame columns, those are Félix’s rankings as if he were one of them; if you want to know how many post-1901 Hall of Famers are ahead of him at any given point, subtract one. Here’s a graph to give you the gist visually:

I’ve oriented the graph so that the higher rankings are at the top. For the guided tour, focus first on his rankings after his age-24 season (2010), the year he won a Cy Young award despite just a 13-12 won-loss record; he led the league in ERA (2.27) and bWAR (7.2), ranked second in ERA+ (174) and strikeouts (232), and fourth in FIP (3.04). On an age basis, fewer than 10 Hall of Famers had surpassed what he’d done as far as strikeouts and WAR, and just 12 had done so with regards to wins. Now move five years down the line, to his standing after his age-29 season (2015), his last All-Star season (18-9, 3.53 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 191 K, 4.5 bWAR). His age-based ranking in strikeouts (2,142) was fourth overall behind only Walter Johnson (2,305), Sam McDowell (2,281), and Bert Blyleven (2,250), of whom only Sudden Sam is outside the Hall. Hernández’s rankings in that department then and now owe something to pitching in a high-strikeout era, admittedly, but on the other side of the coin, he’s at a disadvantage with regards to win totals given the industry’s evolving constraints on pitcher workloads, to say nothing of the Mariners’ oft-meager offense. Circa 2015, he was still in very good shape as far as WAR, 15th overall, with just 11 Hall of Famers ahead of him.

And then, the fall, which became increasingly precipitous with each passing year. The graph only hints at how grueling it was to watch.

Dan Szymborski offered to provide me with ZiPS projections for those two points in Hernández’s career. At either juncture, the career totals are eye-opening, for they place him in the pantheon among the best. Here’s his career projection after his age-24 season:

Félix Hernández Projected After 2010
Period W-L ERA IP SO ERA+ WAR
Through Age 24 71-53 3.20 1154.2 1042 132 25.1
Rest of Career 170-121 3.18 2793.1 2660 116 57.0
Total 241-174 3.18 3948 3702 121 82.1

Lordy. That 3,702 strikeouts would rank fifth all-time, one K ahead of Blyleven and trailing only Nolan Ryan (5,714), Randy Johnson (4,875), Clemens (4,672) and Steve Carlton (4,136). That 82.1 bWAR — this is pitching WAR only, no offense included — would rank 25th all-time, 0.1 below Fergie Jenkins and 0.5 above Bob Gibson. The only pitchers with 80 or more WAR who aren’t in the Hall of Fame are Clemens (138.7) and Curt Schilling (80.5), both currently on the writers’ ballot; the active leader, Justin Verlander, has 71.4.

Now, here’s the same thing after 2015:

Félix Hernández Projected After 2015
Player W-L ERA IP SO ERA+ WAR
Through 29 143-101 3.11 2262.3 2142 128 50.0
Rest of Career 105-61 2.83 1790.0 1829 128 44.6
Total 248-162 2.99 4052.3 3,971 128 94.6

Again, wow. His strikeout ranking is unchanged, his wins and losses aren’t appreciably different, but the outlook for his run prevention has improved, and with it his bWAR, which would rank 13th all time between Blyleven (96.0) and Gaylord Perry (93.0), with Pedro Martinez (86.1) four slots below.

As it is, Hernández has been left in the dust by his contemporaries. His JAWS is closer to those of Jon Lester and Bartolo Colon than Sabathia, let alone Zack Greinke, the active leader, or Kershaw, who’s two years younger but has thus retained some semblance of his dominance into his early 30s. He’s far short of the standards:

Active and Recently Retired Starting Pitchers
Rk Pitcher Yrs W ERA+ SO ERA Career Peak JAWS
Avg of 65 HOF SP 73.2 49.9 61.5
35 Zack Greinke 2004-2019 205 125 2622 3.35 71.8 48.6 60.2
36 Justin Verlander 2005-2019 224 129 2994 3.33 70.9 49.4 60.1
37 Clayton Kershaw 2008-2019 168 156 2456 2.45 67.5 49.6 58.6
45 Roy Halladay HOF 1998-2013 203 131 2117 3.38 64.3 50.6 57.4
59 Max Scherzer 2008-2019 170 132 2692 3.2 60.4 48.7 54.6
69 CC Sabathia 2001-2019 251 116 3093 3.74 63.0 39.3 51.2
80 Cole Hamels 2006-2019 163 123 2550 3.43 59.3 37.6 48.4
82 Johan Santana 2000-2012 139 136 1988 3.2 51.7 45.0 48.3
83 Tim Hudson 1999-2015 222 120 2080 3.49 58.1 38.3 48.2
89 Mark Buehrle 2000-2015 214 117 1870 3.81 59.2 35.8 47.5
102 Roy Oswalt 2001-2013 163 127 1852 3.36 50.1 40.3 45.2
109 Félix Hernández 2005-2019 169 118 2521 3.42 50.0 38.6 44.3
124 Chris Sale 2010-2019 109 140 2007 3.03 45.3 39.5 42.4
133 Cliff Lee 2002-2014 143 118 1824 3.52 43.5 39.8 41.6
143 Bartolo Colon 1997-2018 247 106 2535 4.12 46.1 35.6 40.8
150 Jon Lester 2006-2019 190 120 2355 3.56 45.5 35.0 40.2
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Watching Hernández on Thursday, and intermittently over the past few weeks through thick and thin, I haven’t completely lost hope that he’s capable of another act, a new career in a new town, to borrow a title from a master of reinvention, David Bowie. Hernández wants to keep pitching, but knows nothing is guaranteed. As he told MLB.com’s Greg Johns after Thursday’s start, “We’ll see if I can find a job. I’m not retiring.” Perhaps he’ll rise to the challenge and write another chapter, or maybe his body has had enough, and his mind will reach that point, too. If it ends with his having spent a great 15-year career entirely in one city, pitching for a fan base that adored him, that may not be a story good enough for Cooperstown, but it’s one that we should cherish nonetheless.

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