The Mariners wanted their ace back in 2017, but they wanted him to take a different angle into his outings than he because used to. So far, so good.
Felix Hernandez has embraced a new approach in an effort to put to rest any thoughts that his sub-par 2016 was the beginning of the end of his days as the top-of-the-line starter, and while he may not be fooling batters with the ease he did seven or eight seasons ago, the early results suggest he and the Mariners have found a way to use that to their advantage.
“Felix has now entered the third stage of his career, and I for one could not be happier with the four games he’s started,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said in his weekly visit with “Danny, Dave and Moore” on Thursday. “He knows where he is. He is pounding the strike zone, he is getting ahead of hitters, he’s forcing them to put the ball into play.”
In Hernandez’s latest appearance on Wednesday, that was definitely the case. The Miami Marlins matched the 31-year-old right-hander’s aggressiveness in the first inning, scoring two runs on five singles – at least two of which could have conceivably been outs in the infield with some more luck and/or better defense – and by the time Hernandez left the game, he had allowed 12 hits. That only tells a part of the story, however. Hernandez’s pitch count didn’t get inflated by that first inning, and he was able to stick in the game into the seventh, by which time the Mariners had built an 8-4 advantage.
“(Wednesday was an example) of some of the bad luck that can happen when you’re constantly forcing them to put the ball into play,” Dipoto said. “Some of that happens because he’s just throwing strike one and he’s constantly after the strike zone with his pitches. They’re not gonna hit .400 against Felix Hernandez over the course of a season. … And at the end of the day, when you can go out there and give up a dozen hits and still navigate into the seventh inning against what I think is a very talented Marlins team, that’s doing something. He gave us a chance to win that game, and the reward for him is he gets to go home with a win on a day where he might not have had his best stuff.”
So the game plan Hernandez is taking into games this season, the same one that allowed the Marlins to ambush him at first, ended up being what saved him later on. Dipoto believes it’s also going to allow him more chances for success throughout the season and in the coming years than if he kept trying to do what made him a superstar in the first place.
“What I would tell the fans is that this iteration of Felix, the experienced, multi-thousand-innings, smart pitcher who is now entering the ‘I’m-going-to-win-games’ phase of his career, you’re probably not going to see the 16-strikeout games any more, but I don’t think you’re done seeing Felix Hernandez, the ace,” Dipoto said. “The command that we didn’t see last year, we’re starting to see this year, and he’s learning how to sequence his pitches in such a way that he makes as effective as he’s ever been.”