After a lackluster – by his standards – 2016 season, many are just hoping that Mariners ace Felix Hernandez will ride the momentum of his ramped-up offseason workout program and return to the King of old.
Turns out, the Mariners are actually looking for a brand new King.
That’s because, as general manager Jerry Dipoto said Tuesday on “Brock and Salk” (and manager Scott Servais echoed a day later on the same show), the coaching staff and front office has a new plan for Felix – one that includes a lot more pitches in parts of the strike zone that aren’t in the lower half.
“One of the things that he did last spring that I thought was interesting when he got out there, everything was down, down, down, down, down,” Dipoto said. “Once we got in the regular season, at some point changing eye levels becomes a necessity.”
That change never really came, however. After returning from a calf injury on July 20, Hernandez struggled to the tune of a 4.48 ERA and an opponent slash line of .254/.341/.430 over his final 15 starts of the season. Dipoto and company believe the biggest problem was that opposing batters knew where to look for pitches, and that it can be remedied with an emphasis on keeping those batters honest with more high fastballs.
“To pitch in one location all the time, you have to be so fine to be successful,” Dipoto said. “Felix was so good with such great stuff in the bottom quadrants where everything was down. And here last year was the first time that the stuff needed to start moving to different quadrants, and it wasn’t something he was super familiar with.”
He’s certainly more familiar with it now.
“He’s attacked it this year,” Dipoto said of the new philosophy for Hernandez. “I think Felix has worked hard on that through the course of the early part of this spring.”
The hope for Hernandez is that a little extra presence up in the zone will re-establish his dominance with pitches down in the zone, something that Dipoto said is still his strength.
“The physical stuff under the zone has always been very good,” Dipoto said. “His secondary pitches look pretty sharp. You just want to see him throw strikes, and can he change the elevation on his pitches … because the stuff works.”
It isn’t just a willingness to pitch in a way previously out of his comfort zone that has been a highlight of Hernandez’s spring training for Dipoto, though. The Mariners GM said the team’s 30-year-old ace has also been more serious about his role as leader on the team.
“Felix did work hard, and I think maybe this spring more than last, I’ve seen Felix as more of a driver to the machine,” Dipoto said. “In the clubhouse, as we get to the fields, he’s really part of the group in a way that has been refreshing for me to watch. He’s kind of in the middle of everything, and that wasn’t the case early on last spring – largely because last year because when we got here Felix was not yet in throwing position. He spent the first 10 days acclimating himself to the weather in Arizona before he got on a mound, and whether it was his offseason conditioning program or understanding that he needed to be ready for the (World Baseball Classic), he came in this year ready to get after it.”
It also helped that Hernandez is well aware of his doubters after last season and driven to finally reach the postseason for the first time in his career after another near-miss last October.
“You can see it, the way that last season’s excitement has affected him in the clubhouse, and I also think he has a little bit of an edge,” Dipoto said. “He feels like he has something to prove to the people who have questioned him.”