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Drayer: Félix Hernández has finally embraced change, and the Mariners are seeing results

Félix Hernández has thrown six innings or more in each of his last four starts. (Getty)

After two weeks of offensive and defensive struggles, a positive for the Mariners has emerged. Félix Hernández is looking more and more like a pitcher who has figured out how to survive in his non-prime years.

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Getting to this point has meant putting a dark and disastrous 2018 season behind him, and learning how to use not just what he has but understanding what his weapons are in his 15th year in the big leagues.

Félix has always been reticent to talk about change, the need to change or even acknowledge that he has ever changed. After a strong performance in San Diego on April 24, he responded to a compliment on his outing with, “Why was that impressive? You’ve seen me pitch better than that?” The friendly bravado wasn’t exactly false but make no mistake, it had been missing for some time.

“Last year was the worst year of my career. I was a little frustrated and I lost my confidence a little bit,” Félix admitted.

Félix knew his mechanics were off and, as a result, far too many fastballs were left in the middle of the plate. He also knew his bread-and-butter changeup was no longer the threat it had been to opposing hitters. He didn’t need to look at the numbers. The baseball itself and the hitter’s reactions were all he needed to see to know he was in trouble.

In 2017 he could point to injuries as being the problem. Last year left no place to hide. It made for a season he couldn’t put behind him quickly enough, but not before diagnosing just why it felt everything he threw ended up in the middle of the plate.

“There was a mechanical problem, and I was not right in my mind,” he said flatly.

He went to work on both this winter.

“I worked on everything,” Félix said. “My mind first. My mind, I was talking to some doctors, we still talk about it every day, that was the right move. Just be confident again. Just go out there and compete against anybody and you know you are going to be good because you have good stuff. That’s what happened right now.”

To not have his confidence was a completely foreign feeling for Félix.

“That was the first time,” he said. “That’s why I was so frustrated because I couldn’t get out of it. I didn’t trust myself. But I definitely talked with the right people, some good people. I had a good conversation with my family. They believe in me, I believe in myself again. That was the key.”

With his mind in the right place, he was able to fix his mechanics next. He’s straight to the plate again and his command has been on point, issuing just four walks in his first six starts this season. The biggest change on the hill, however, has come with his pitch usage. He no longer is trying to pitch like the 2014 Félix. He finally acknowledges that he is indeed pitching differently and giving different looks to hitters.

“Definitely,” he confirmed. “I’m trying to come in, both sides of the plate, curveball up and down, slider down and away. That’s what I am doing right now.”

The curveball usage has been the biggest change. Where in the past he leaned on his changeup, it is the curveball he has gone to the most in his last two outings. It is something that the Mariners have been trying to get him to do for some time. He now understands why it was time to push the curve to the forefront.

“I had a good curveball for my whole career,” he said. “When I started, my first year I was fastball/curveball. I was throwing hard and I used a lot of my fastball. Then in 2009 to 2014 it was fastball/change. To distribute all those pitches, it was going to be hard because I was always going to go to my changeup because that was my key pitch. But now I have to do everything because I don’t have that plus-fastball. I’ve got a good curveball. I have got to throw everything.”

Not only is Félix throwing the curveball more, he is looking to improve it. While he still does not like to look at video or pay much attention to scouting numbers in meetings, preferring to rely on his catcher and his own reading of swings during games, Mariners director of pitching development Brian Delunas is seeing a different Félix behind the scenes.

“He’s more open,” Delunas said recently after watching a bullpen session at T-Mobile Park. “We had the Rapsodo out there for him and what he really wanted to do was pay attention to the difference in velocities of the curveball and he also wanted to see what the movement on the pitch really looks like.”

Felix has also inquired about the specs on his sinker.

“Against the Astros he had an inning where he had two strikeouts that were looking, and both of those pitches were on a pitch that he doesn’t typically throw,” Delunas pointed out. “It was on an arm-side moving two-seam fastball that he actually threw off the plate glove-side and it ran back to the plate. And if you watched the hitters, they just stood there and looked at it. Partially because he hadn’t done it a lot in the past but partially because it was a ball out of his hand and came back as a strike. Félix has the ability to do that, he just hasn’t had to do it in the past a whole lot. Just the information, the ability to say, ‘Hey, there are things we can walk you though in terms of location and movement that you can use to help get outs,’ he’s been really good about that.”

The help is there and it would appear that Félix is becoming more accepting of it. An added bonus has been the trust his new catcher has earned. Omar Narváez is someone who can reinforce much of the new approach and is someone Félix has no problem listening to. The bottom line is that change had to start with Félix, and he has made changes.

All of this has added up to the start that Félix needed. The test will be can he stick with the changes when struggles arise. For now, his outlook is good and his mindset what it was before 2018.

“You play happy to play good and that’s what I am doing now. I am having fun.”

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