King Félix's drive: 'The Hall of Fame'

February 18th, 2021

Straddling the backfield mound for the first time at the Orioles' spring complex this week, looked both unmistakable and entirely unfamiliar. There was an asymmetry to the image: same quiet high set position, same slightly askew cap, same violent elegance to the delivery that made Hernández, for more than a decade in Seattle, synonymous with pitching royalty. Only the colors were different, and strikingly so: brilliant bright orange laced with black lettering, as dissimilar from Mariner blue as Seattle is to Baltimore.

This is King Félix at age 34, in Orioles camp on a Minor League deal, almost 17 months removed from his last regular season game. He is the owner of six All-Star recognitions, two American League ERA titles, one AL Cy Young Award and more than $200 million in career earnings. He is arguably the most accomplished pitcher to wear an Orioles uniform in a generation, yet as far removed as ever from the peak of his powers.

What's still driving him to keep pitching?

"The Hall of Fame," Hernández said Thursday. "I think I have a shot, but I have a few numbers that need to tick up. If I get to those goals, I think I have a good shot at the Hall of Fame."

For the safest chance at induction, Hernández said he believes he needs to reach 200 victories and 3,000 strikeouts. He won 169 games and notched 2,524 strikeouts from 2005-19 with the Mariners.

Hernández was great enough for enough of that stretch to build what is at least a borderline case: During his 10-year peak from 2006-17, Hernández ranked second among MLB starters in strikeouts, third in starts and innings, fourth in ERA and shutouts, and fifth in complete games. His Cooperstown resume remains light on volume and lacking completely in postseason experience are both largely due to factors outside of Hernandez's control.

"It was a different level when he was on the mound," Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. "He was so dominant, and it was a show every time."

Of the 25 other pitchers with at least Hernández's number of wins, strikeouts and career ERA, 23 are in Cooperstown or certainly headed there. Still, reaching those self-imposed milestones will require a second act longer than the one-year Minor League deal Hernández signed this winter with Baltimore, which will pay him $1 million if he makes the club. And it can't look like the steady decline of his final three seasons in Seattle, where Hernández battled injuries and went 15-27 with a 5.42 ERA. Hernández competed for a job in the Braves' rotation last spring, but he ultimately opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns.

"Those years in Seattle, I wasn't healthy, I was going through a lot of injuries and I wasn't having fun," Hernández said. "Right now, I feel really, really good. I'm ready to go."

Asked what appealed to him about Baltimore, Hernández said the chance to simply pitch like he still wants to. The Orioles would love him to grab a spot in their messy rotation picture, which is full of question marks behind ace John Means. They brought Hernández and fellow veterans Matt Harvey and Wade LeBlanc to camp on Minor League deals with that type of stability in mind, hoping it would provide room for them to manage the workloads of prospects like Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin and others.

In that way, the Orioles' union with Hernández feels symbiotic, even if the image of a king in orange takes some getting used to. Hernández and the O's both need the same thing: innings. The question is, what can he still do with them?

"It's about the opportunity that I got here," Hernández said. "It's a lot of young guys, and I didn't play last year at all, and they gave me a chance to come here and compete for a spot in the rotation."