For the past two seasons the Mariners have tried to get Felix Hernandez to change.
His manager, his pitching coach and his catcher all saw a path that could lead Felix out of the struggles he encountered as he saw his fastball diminish, dealt with injury and put more miles on his arm. Change does not come easily, however, to Felix Hernandez. He is, after all, the King. In his mind, everything would be OK if he could just stay healthy.
Sure, Felix heard their words. He tried things here and there but there was no commitment to the ideas and plans they tried to put forth. Putting trust in new ideas is not easy when you have been at the top of the game, and it appeared that Felix believed that if he stuck with what got him to his throne, if he worked hard and gave everything when he competed, the results would be there.
“I’ve never seen a guy be as good as he is after giving up maybe a leadoff double, getting out of trouble,” said Mariners catcher Mike Zunino. “He has a different gear, a different mentality, and that sometimes is the gear he gets stuck in with nobody on, nobody out and he’s putting that much stress on himself.”
While Felix prides himself in his competitiveness – and it’s real, whether he is pitching a shutout or has given up six runs in a disappointing start – to his credit he fights hard to stay in games regardless of situation. But that ability to turn things up hasn’t always helped.
“He’s got plenty of weapons so we are hoping there will be maybe a little more understanding of what jams are and what aren’t jams,” said pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. “Trouble.”
Not the same Mariners
For a good part of his Mariners career, one run could spell trouble for Felix – not because of what he did but because of what his offense did not. That shouldn’t be the case anymore. He shouldn’t have to turn it up to nasty when he has a runner on first base. That should not be a jam or trouble, and when you are a pitcher who already runs hot, making a situation out of an instance where there isn’t one can lead to shorter outings.
“It is so counter-intuitive when you say it, but I told him you could almost go out there until you are dog tired and then just go out there and pitch,” said Zunino. “He gets so amped up and he gets so eager to put guys away and eager to strike guys out that his effort level all of a sudden goes from 95 to 100 percent, to now he is pitching at 110 percent from pitch 1 to his last pitch. He doesn’t need to pitch that way.
“He has too much still that works, he’s got great movement, he has good command and he still has the put-away pitches, but sometimes when you try too hard it takes away from your stuff. And I think he is starting to learn that now that if he can dial back and just repeat his delivery, he’s going to be fine. He’s going to get guys he didn’t think he could at just 85 percent.”
Getting more from less has been part of an ongoing dialogue with Zunino and Felix over the last year and a half. An assist came late last year – in what turned out to be Felix’s last start of the year, in fact – when he showed up at the Oakland Coliseum not feeling particularly well. He pushed through that afternoon and headed to the bullpen for his warmups.
What ensued alarmed Stottlemyre to the point where he told manager Scott Servais that they might want to warm up Andrew Albers in the first inning. Felix was clearly not 100 percent and threw what he said very well may have been the worst bullpen before a start he had ever thrown. He then went on to pitch six innings, giving up just one run and using only 70 pitches.
“He said to me I’m just going to try to get outs, as many outs with as few pitches as I can,” remembered Stottlemyre. “He had a nice sinker that day, efficient pitch count and still got his strikeouts (two). We talked long and hard about it over the course of the winter. I always have to respect what he has done in the game. It has been a bit of a tough sell but I think he has bought into it this spring and he is ready to move forward with that and see where it takes him.”
What we saw from Felix in his abbreviated spring training was more than just dialing it back, however. Much more. His entire approach to pitching was different, his sequencing was different and we saw additions to the arsenal, as well. It all looked very different – something that Felix, being Felix, did not want to admit at first.
“No, I can’t say that. I’m not different,” he said adamantly.
But Felix slowly started to relent, and then, floodgates.
“I mean I do stuff different on the mound, but think I’m the same guy. I’m just trying to invent some stuff, trying to be open, see what the results are when I do that (motions spinning the ball), this, quick pitch, not quick pitch, hold it and that stuff. And it feels good.”
So much for not different.
A more resourceful Felix
It was good to watch Felix use what he had at his disposal this spring. It wasn’t the King’s Court “K-K-K-K” strike-’em-out Felix, but it was fun to watch.
“He can do some incredible things with the baseball,” said Stottlemyre. “The spin of the curveball, the bottom of the changeup, he can pitch back door, he can work back and forth. He just hasn’t bought in to that approach. I really think he is enjoying pitching again. He’s embracing the deception and the changing of the delivery things he is doing, and things come really easy to him.
“I haven’t pushed on the delivery things. I think he has seen other guys do it and jokingly tried it and now he has seen how effective it is. It is tell-tale for me that he realizes he is going to do some things different and I think he is embracing it. He’s still going to get his strikeouts. He’s having fun and I think he is enjoying pitching again.”
Said Felix: “I’m just having fun on the mound trying to do different things and it’s working. I threw some slow changeups, some hard changeups. Soft curveball, hard curveball, quick pitch. People are going to put that in mind.”
An important point. Having spent his entire career on the same team, some division foes have as many as 40-50 at bats against Felix.
“They know, they know me pretty well,” he said. “Sometimes you have got to make some adjustments and some changes that can help your career move along.”
The first day of moving his career along is opening day, Thursday. Can he take the changes he has made into the regular season, and will they be effective? Can he control the drive and the adrenaline and take a little off both his pitches and effort level, which in turn can lead to even more movement on his pitches if his delivery is sound, according to both Stottlemyre Jr. and Zunino?
What was seen in Peoria this spring was very encouraging.
“I think he is as determined as ever,” said Zunino, “and I think when you put a challenge out there for Felix I think he answers the call. Obviously he may not be at the pitch count he wants to be, but he sure as hell can help this team win.”
Said Stottlemyre: “He’s got weapons to play games with guys and has the ability to do that to all the corners, work back and forth. He’s a pitch-maker when he buys into it.
“I am really looking forward in moving forward with this new game plan and watching him and what he can do. I really think he can be a great pitcher still.”