King’s Court, the cheering section at Safeco Field for Felix Hernandez, started on May 28, 2011, marking the first time a stadium promotion was designed for a Major League Baseball player.
It’s been fun. Seven years of Felix fans in yellow T-shirts raising their yellow ‘K’ cards, rooting for the King to strike out every batter with two strikes, chanting “K-K-K-K-K.”
But King’s Court has run its course. It’s time to put it in the fond-memory file with the 1995 and 2001 seasons. It’s actually a year or two overdue because the current Felix isn’t the flame-throwing Felix we used to know.
The Mariners don’t want him to be a strikeout pitcher. They want him to pitch to contact, get ground outs and fly-ball outs, which makes more sense since he doesn’t have the strikeout-fastball velocity anymore and hitters aren’t swinging at his changeups in the dirt like they did in the past.
But think about it – if you’re Felix and you’ve got hundreds if not thousands of fans chanting for a strikeout, human nature says you’re going to try to give them one. This is especially true for a guy like Felix, who has taken his “King” nickname too far.
In an interview last spring in Peoria, the thing that stuck out to me the most was Felix saying, “I’m still the King.”
And I was thinking: “Yes you are, but no you’re not.” Nicknames don’t just go away, so I guess in some respects he’ll always be “the King,” but it’s not serving him well as a pitcher who will turn 32 on April 8, one who has thrown more than 2,500 innings for the Mariners.
I don’t know if the Mariners will ever be able to convince him that his days of pitching like a King are over, and that pitching like a prince would be more beneficial to the team. Or if he doesn’t like the thought of “downgrading” to a prince, what about becoming a gracefully aging King, one who understands his limitations and is willing to make the transition to a veteran-savvy pitcher who can still get outs in other ways.
With injuries and age causing lackluster results the past two years, the King pitched more like a pauper – his ERA inflated to a career-high 4.36 last year. If I were him, I’d be thinking about what I could do to reinvent myself and prolong my career into my late 30s and increase my chances for the Hall of Fame. But will his ego allow that to happen? I’m guessing it would be hard to be one of the best pitchers in the game and suddenly have someone tell you that you’re not that guy anymore, that they’d be fine with you as a middle-of-the-rotation starter.
When you try to size up the Mariners in 2018, the biggest perceived weakness is the rotation. Did you ever think you’d see the day when a rotation with Felix in it would be criticized? But that’s what it’s come to. If he weren’t under contract for the next two years, making $26 million in 2018 and $27 million in 2019, I think the Mariners would move on without him.
Last summer I was in no hurry for Felix to come back from injury because the pitchers who replaced him, such as Andrew Albers, gave the Mariners better starts than the King would have.
I’ve always liked Felix and appreciated his loyalty to the Mariners. Who would have blamed him if he opted out at some point because he wanted to play for a World Series contender? But he has always chosen to stay in Seattle.
It’s just time for him to embrace the idea of becoming a new version of Felix. It’s also time for him to be receptive to constructive criticism and work harder than he ever has before. He can’t get by on his natural ability anymore. If he is told that James Paxton will be the Opening Day starter against the Indians on March 29 at Safeco Field, I hope he doesn’t pout about it. I hope it motivates him to become a better pitcher – maybe he can put a chip on his shoulder like one of the Seahawks would.
Felix has had an incredible career, and again, if I’m him, I desperately want it to continue as long as possible, particularly with Cooperstown as a carrot. With that in mind, he needs to be open to everything that will help him, whether it’s advice from coaches or the elimination of King’s Court.