It's kind of hard to believe it, but Felix Hernandez is in his eighth season in the bigs. It turns out that time flies even when you are not having fun. Under-appreciated perhaps. Under-noticed, definitely. If Felix was a Yankee this entire time, and I give praise to all of the Gods and religions that he is not, he would be the most popular pitcher of the 2000s. He'd have a much bigger trophy case. He'd be so annoyingly good, handsome, and successful that I think most of us outside of New York would despite how amazing he was, even if we respected it.
Thankfully for us, he is a Mariner and we'll commiserate with King Felix for as long as we can.
It's incredible to think what has happened with Felix over the last decade and that he has so far lived up to the hype as the best pitching prospect in the history of the organization, a feat that likely will never be matched.
He was rated by Baseball America as the 30th best prospect in all of baseball, and this was slightly before he had even turned 18. Before Felix had been old enough to join the army, buy Jugs magazine, or smoke Lucky Strikes, he was considered one of the elite pitching prospects in the game. That season, he split time between high-A Inland Empire and AA San Antonio, compiling a 14-4 record, 2.95 ERA, and 172 strikeouts in 149.1 innings. As one of the youngest pitchers you'll ever find in AA, he was also one of the best pitchers you'll ever find in AA. Felix was unhittable and the next season Baseball America rated him as the #2 prospect in the game, right behind Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer.
The King started the next season at AAA Tacoma at the ripe age of 19 (For comparisons sake, Taijuan Walker is currently 19 at AA and is extremely younger than the average AA player. Felix was the same age at the highest minor league level and killing it) and went 9-4 with 100 strikeouts in 88 innings with a 2.25 ERA. Like other phenoms such as Stephen Strasburg, Felix was just too good for any hitter in the minor leagues. His only challenge would come against professionals. Those were the only hitters that had ever stood a chance against Felix after he compiled a 2.59 ERA with 363 strikeouts in 306.1 minor league innings. His challenge would come at 19, one of the youngest starting pitchers in the major leagues in the modern era.
Upon his callup on August 4, 2005, Felix didn't disappoint. In his first major league start, still just a teenager, Felix faced the Detroit Tigers and went 5 innings, 3 hits, 2 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, and 4 K. Over his next four major league starts: 31 innings, 34 K, 3 BB, 1.74 ERA and went 8 innings three times. Already he looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball, besting hitters that were 5, 10, 15 years older than him. Guys that have been doing this since Felix was learning to walk.
Of course, it's hard to remember now, but Felix did experience his own growing pains during his early 20s as he wasn't quite the King we think of him as today. Over 2006-2008, Felix compiled an ERA of 3.96 and though you could see improvements, there were also struggles. His stuff was good, but his command and control were sometimes off and the inconsistency was glaring at times. It was not quite as visible as what we had seen with a young Freddy Garcia before he too blossomed into a very good pitcher, but it was visible. It's learning to let go of your mistakes and move onto the next batter without getting down on yourself. Eventually, he got that and eventually, he dominated. We just had to wait until he turned the ripe old age of 23.
In 2009, Felix went 19-5, 2.49 ERA and finished 2nd in the Cy Young voting to a dominant Zack Greinke. The next season he made history and controversy by winning his first Cy Young award with a 13-12 record, many old school baseball folks thinking you shouldn't win with such a record, despite the fact that win-loss record is meaningless and that Felix was clearly the best pitcher in American League that year.
Successively each season, Felix has gotten better.
He has increased his strikeout rate in each of the last four years and reduced his walk rate from 3.6 walks per nine innings in 2008 to 2.4 walks per nine innings this season. While Felix has never been a slouch in the strikeout department, he's taken steps towards that next level where we could envision him being a "300 strikeout pitcher" unlike anything we've seen in Seattle since the days of Randy Johnson.
This year, he's got a major league leading 140 strikeouts and posting 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Is it possible that this Felix Hernandez is the best we've ever seen and that he's only getting better?
Better than one of the best pitching prospects in baseball history.
Better than one of the best teen pitchers in major league baseball history.
Better than a Cy Young winner. Better than he's ever been?
It would almost seem like a "No Duh" answer that a pitcher at 26 would be better than a pitcher at 19, but it doesn't always work out that way. In fact with phenom pitchers, it seems to rarely ever work out that way. Take for example, the teen pitcher that all teen pitchers will be compared to: Dwight Gooden.
"Doc" went 17-9 for the Mets in 1984 with a 2.60 ERA and a league-leading 276 strikeouts at the age of 19. He finished 2nd in the Cy Young vote. He was perhaps even better the next season as a workhorse starter that had 16 complete games, 276.2 innings, a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts while winning the Cy Young at the age of 20. In 1986 his skills were already looking worse for the wear, though he still went 17-6 with a 2.84 ERA, finished 7th in the Cy Young vote, and the Mets won the 1986 World Series.
He had one of the greatest starts to a career of all-time and then the rest of his career was mired in mediocrity. If there was ever a teenage pitcher that looked bound for the Hall of Fame, it was Doc, but he managed just two more All-Star games and a couple of more good seasons after those first three years, and was off of the Hall ballot after just one year with 3.3% of the vote.
There isn't much for Felix to compare to in the modern era. Sorting on Baseball-Reference for pitchers since 1960 to pitch a minimum of 50 innings as a teenager with 80% or more of their games coming as a starter, there are only nine names, the most successful of which is Gooden.
There's Gary Nolan, who started 32 games for the Reds in 1967 and went 14-8 with a 2.58 ERA, 206 K, 62 BB in 226.2 innings. He posted a 2.40 ERA in 22 starts the next season and at the age of 24 in 1972 went 15-5 with a 1.99 ERA in 25 starts for Cincinnati. However, his career was ruined by injuries. He made two starts in 1973, missed 1974. He did come back and helped the Reds win the World Series in 1975 and 1976, but 1977 would be his last season and he never pitched a game in the majors in the his 30s.
Bert Blyleven debuted with the Twins in 1970 at the age of 19 and though he was never quite the dominant pitcher that Felix was, he did pitch for 22 seasons with the Twins, Indians, Pirates, Angels, and Rangers and compiled 287 wins with a career 3.31 ERA. That longevity and the writers love affair with wins are what helped Blyleven reach the Hall of Fame in 2011 after 14 years on the ballot.
The other teenage pitcher names probably won't be so familiar to you, unless you're an older fan: Larry Dierker, Wally Bunker, Roy Sadecki, David Clyde, and Mike Morgan.
You may also remember that Morgan was a Mariner for three seasons from 1985-1987, but nobody will blame you if you don't remember him.
All of this is just to give you a more well-rounded idea of just how special Felix is. That he's in rare company among teenage starting pitchers but he's perhaps in a class of his own as a pitcher that came up in his teens and then continued to get better and better, rather than having not saved his best for last like Gooden. Felix has given Seattle 1,521 innings over his eight year career and the scariest part for opposing AL West hitters is that he might only be getting started.
Amid reports before the year that Felix had lost significant velocity, and in-season reports on radar guns that have confirmed that notion, he's become the best version of himself that he's ever been before. Even for a pitcher that we already deemed as one of the top five starting pitchers in baseball, he's besting himself over his last six starts:
45 innings, 56 strikeouts, 6 walks, 1.40 ERA.
Felix has posted 10+ strikeouts and 1 or less walks in three of his last five starts and in his July 3rd start against Baltimore he was flat out dominating for five innings before one bad inning, and still finished with 8 strikeouts and 0 walks. He's more in control of his elite "stuff" than he's ever been. If this is what Felix can bring at 26, and if it's been progressively better every season of his career, then goodness what are we to expect of him at 28? 30? Will he gradually even get better like Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay have been and then what could we expect of him at age 35?
What exactly does the future hold for potentially the most accomplished 26-year-old in the modern era?
It would be impossible for us to predict what Felix will do throughout the rest of his career, just like it is tough to predict what a prospect will do after he's given high praise on a top 100 list. Take for example the names that Felix was just ahead of on that 2005 list that had Joe Mauer at 1 and Felix at 2: Delmon Young, Ian Stewart, Joel Guzman, Casey Kotchman, Scott Kazmir, Rickie Weeks, and Andy Marte.
It could have been just as easy for Felix to flounder as most of those names have, but he reached expectations and has so far exceeded them in just eight years. If we could look into the future and see what Felix had done by 2020 (when he'll be just 34) perhaps we've seen something more special than we've ever seen before. Perhaps we won't. We can only hope for the best and continue marveling in Felix's magnificence as he enters what it typically thought of as the "prime years" for a player, just like we've happily been doing for nearly a decade.
It's weird to think that just maybe, the best has just begun.