This franchise icon can't strike out Father Time

King Felix, just 32, headed to bullpen after steep decline

August 10th, 2018
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez in the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays during a baseball game on Sunday, June 3, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)John Froschauer/AP

Nothing in baseball -- nothing in sports -- makes your insides feel quite as hollow as watching a great player grow old before your very eyes. And yet, that's a huge part of the game.

In Los Angeles, we have grown used to seeing , one of the greatest players in the history of baseball, flail. -- a Triple Crown winner, an all-timer who can already begin working on his Hall of Fame speech -- is injured and weakened. has been a fantastic pitcher and an even better person, and now he's fighting hard against the idea of retirement.

But none of them hurts quite like watching decline.

Hernandez was pure joy, nothing less. He was born to pitch; he was discovered at 14, when he was already throwing in the low 90s, and he was 17 when he played his first season in the Mariners' Minor League system.

How good was King Felix then? "It's difficult to project Hernandez's ceiling," Baseball America wrote, "because his ability seems limitless."

Limitless is what you call a pitcher who throws his fastball in the high 90s, a curveball that rises and falls like the sea, a mid-90s slider and, oh, by the way, has perhaps the best changeup in the game. But even with all that, it was the joy of Hernandez's pitching -- his obvious and overwhelming love for being out there on the mound doing his thing -- that made him irresistible. He was like one of those orchestra conductors who moves and sways with the music, feeling every note, enjoying every second.

Hernandez was limitless. But even more, he was irresistible.

From 2009-14, King Felix was the best pitcher in the American League. He made the All-Star team in five of those six seasons. The year Hernandez didn't make the All-Star team, he won the AL Cy Young Award. He finished second twice more in the voting, led the league in ERA twice, and he led the league in WHIP, FIP, shutouts, innings pitched and wins once each.

Hernandez threw a perfect game in 2012 -- the most recent perfect game in baseball (which is pretty crazy, because back in '12, they seemed to be happening every other week).

You know what was baseball heaven in those days? Staying up (if you were on the East Coast), tuning in to the Mariners' game, and just settling in and watching King Felix pitch. It was art and science rolled together. He was a marvel just about every time out.

Looking back, it's pretty clear the decline began in the second half of the 2015 season. Hernandez was typically incredible in the first half; it looked like it might be his best season. Going into June, he was 8-1 with a 1.91 ERA. Hernandez then had a rough start against the Yankees, a disastrous one two outings later against the Astros (one-third of an inning, eight earned runs). OK, it was a blip. He quickly returned to form. The idea that the reign of King Felix was coming to an end would have been utterly inconceivable at that moment.

But then Hernandez had another disastrous start, this one against the Red Sox in mid-August. He gave up 10 runs in just 2 1/3 innings. In the end, Hernandez finished 18-9 with a 3.53 ERA, which certainly seems pretty good -- he finished seventh in the AL Cy Young Award voting. But something was happening.

The next year, Hernandez faded even more. His fastball velocity dropped two miles per hour. He began relying more on his sinker. The legendary pitching coach Bill Fischer once said that you start worrying when a sinking fastball becomes a sinker -- that is to say, when the pitch loses its "fastball" qualities.

Hernandez got off to a great start again in 2016; he had a 2.21 ERA after his first nine starts and the league was hitting just .205 against him. But it went bad from there; he posted a 4.76 ERA the rest of the way. Hernandez's strikeouts went way down, his walks and homers way up. He could not find his command. And that sinker was not working; Batters slugged .543 against it.

I went to see Hernandez during Spring Training in 2017. He was driven. He had put on 12 pounds of muscle. He was committed to getting ahead of hitters. Hernandez planned to bring back some of his power game and throw more four-seam fastballs, the pitch that had been his foundation when he was at his best. There was hope; he was only 31. Surely, King Felix would rebound.

Instead, Hernandez had a disastrous year. It began with a shoulder injury. Then he had a biceps injury. Around those, he struggled to get people out. Hernandez finished with a 4.36 ERA, but even that just didn't tell the story of how old a 31-year-old King Felix looked.

And then there's this year. The less said about this year, the better. There is simply nothing that Felix Hernandez is doing well. He's not striking out hitters, and he's walking too many. He's giving up home runs and baserunners, a terrible combination. Hernandez's 1.44 WHIP is sixth worst in the AL among qualified starters, and his 5.73 ERA is second worst.

And as if that's not all bad enough, Hernandez been even worse than that the last few weeks, as the Mariners have fallen behind the A's in the race for the final AL Wild Card spot. His struggles have now reached the panic point, and on Thursday, manager Scott Servais announced that Hernandez would be heading to the bullpen.

At this point, you wonder: What good thing can happen for one of the greatest pitchers of our time? The fastball velocity is clearly not coming back; it's below 90 mph on average, and Hernandez has essentially stopped throwing it. The sinker is still not sinking; batters are hitting .335 and slugging .559 against it this year. He still throws a terrific curveball and a solid change, but his hard stuff is batting practice for big league hitters. I'm not sure how you survive as a curveball/changeup guy.

Of course, the only thing you can do is root for the guy who brought everyone so much joy. Who knows? Maybe Hernandez can rediscover a couple miles per hour in the bullpen. Maybe he's hurt, and what he needs is rest. It's hard to say. Hernandez is still just 32 years old. Something could turn.

For now, we're left with a sad reality: All great pitchers decline eventually, but this is much too soon. The years just don't play fair.