January 4, 2013
Then and Now: It's Good to Be the King
The legend of Felix Hernandez is surprisingly old for an athlete so young. Signed out of Venezuela at the age of 16, King Felix flew through the Mariners system, earning his regal nickname en route to the major leagues and staking his claim to the Safeco Field throne while he was still a teenager. With his combination of elite talent and the work ethic to realize his upside, Hernandez is the ideal pitcher to profile in this first edition of a new series on pitcher development, as we trace his career path “then and now.”
The BP staffers were cautious with ranking the inexperienced right-hander when constructing the Top 50 Prospects list of 2004, eventually leaving him off the list in favor of more seasoned players, but Hernandez would earn redemption in the '05 Annual, receiving the highest pitcher ranking as the number-three overall prospect on the Top 50. King Felix's stay atop the prospect rankings was brief, as he permanently lost his eligibility with a dominant debut that cemented his status as the future of pitching in the Great Northwest. Hernandez’s talent fueled predictions of immediate stardom, as reflected in the following line from his '05 player comment: “He's going to finish in the top three in Cy Young voting in 2006…”
The path to hardware did not come quite so easily, and the heightened expectations attached to the King's right arm produced feelings of disappointment despite a performance record that was rather remarkable for a kid who was essentially going through his collegiate education in the Show. From 2006 to 2008, Hernandez was perpetually over-drafted in fantasy leagues in anticipation of ace-like numbers, yet the supposed wunderkind disappointed his followers with an ERA in the high threes and WHIPs that approached 1.40. Then something clicked in his fifth season in the league, and the King has ruled his court ever since.
For the first few years of his career, Hernandez struck out his fair share of hitters while maintaining the walk rate of a veteran, though his tendency to miss within the zone led to heavy doses of hard contact. The trends changed course in 2008, with the walk rate climbing by more than a batter per nine innings while the hit rate dropped by a comparable margin, but the net result was a similar volume of base runners. The Mariners were cautious with the right-hander's workload as he progressed through the injury nexus, drawing a line at 200 innings until his age-23 season.