Stark: Mariners’ Felix Hernandez in the process of ‘reinventing himself’

Sep 7, 2016, 11:08 AM | Updated: 12:12 pm

The Mariners’ most dependable player of the past decade is in a rut.

Felix Hernandez has allowed 12 runs over his last two starts, both against the division-leading Rangers, inflating his ERA from 3.14 to 3.75. Beyond his uncharacteristic trip to the disabled list for a calf strain that kept him off the mound for nearly two months, Felix has been inconsistent at times during the season, fluctuating between brilliance and mediocrity.

ESPN baseball insider Jayson Stark told “Brock and Salk” on Tuesday that he doesn’t put too much stock in Felix’s two lousy starts against the powerful and deep Rangers’ lineup, but noted that it’s hard to properly diagnose what has been off with Felix this season.

“He’s in the process of reinventing himself and, for the most part, he’s done it well and, for the most part, he’s found ways to win,” Stark said. “… I think he’s got a real high pitcher’s IQ, baseball IQ that helps guide him through these times. It’s much harder to do against a lineup that good and that deep (as the Rangers’).”

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Texas scored five times off Felix in the third inning of Monday’s 14-6 win, and catcher Jesus Sucre told reporters that Felix was flustered by a few borderline pitches that were called balls.

“It was my fault. I got out of my game a little bit there,” Hernandez said.

Early in his career, Felix had the benefit of a mid-90s fastball, but now that the onetime 10-11 mph separation between his heater and devastating changeup is closer to a 3-4 mph difference, that’s making him less effective, Stark said.

“I don’t know whether he needs another pitch or he needs another way to get hitters off his primary pitches but that’s what he’s in the middle of figuring out,” Stark said.

Besides losing some gusto on his fastball, which has led to the lowest strikeout rate (7.6 per nine innings) of his career, Felix has also seen his command dissipate this season. His current rate of 4.0 walks per nine innings would be the highest of his career and more than double his rate (1.8) from 2014, when he finished second in the AL’s Cy Young voting. Stark said the diminished pitch speed has played a role in Felix’s extra walks, as pitch recognition has become easier for hitters and he becomes easier to game plan against.

“It’s easier to take those pitches out of the strike zone now than it used to be,” Stark said. “Once upon a time, you tended to be behind in the count more if you were facing him because he could get ahead of you with that fastball and then you had to chase.

“When you’re in more hitter’s counts, that’s always a factor. He’s got to figure out a way … maybe have two different kinds of changeups, where there is one he can throw for a strike and there’s one he can throw to get that chase, that swing and miss when he’s ahead in the count. Because the way he’s doing it now against good teams that have seen him a lot, it’s getting harder and harder.”

Despite being only 30 years old, Felix has pitched nearly 2,400 innings in the major leagues. He is also set to make more than $26 million for the last three years of his seven-year, $175 million contract. Mike Salk asked Stark what he thinks general manager Jerry Dipoto’s options are, and should be, moving forward regarding Hernandez.

“The impression I came away with is they’re going to find a way to make this work,” Stark said. “They’re in no frame of mind to try to move Felix or move on without Felix. They need to take a long, hard look at Felix and figure out what they’ve got and how he’s got to adjust. I still think the plan is for him to be the centerpiece of this staff because who is the heir apparent?”

Stark says the Mariners can still feel comfortable with Felix as their ace.

“They’ve still got a tremendous record in games he starts,” he said. “Felix does exude a certain aura about him even still, I think most times he’s out there. The question is can he beat a really good team, a really good lineup? Can he outduel somebody else’s ace in a big game? I don’t know if he’s that anymore, but there are a lot of pitchers that go to the mound for the other 29 teams that are a lot worse than Felix.”

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