Most of the time when Seattle Mariners’ ace Felix Hernandez strides from the dugout to the mound to begin an inning, the hitters are in a world of trouble.
“King Felix,’’ as the Venezuelan right-hander is called, and the American League starting pitcher in the recently held All-Star Game claimed by the Junior Circuit, 5-3, is one of the most effective hurlers in the major leagues.
It’s not a pretty picture what batters see when facing Hernandez, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder, who has six pitches at his fingertips, thrown at varying speeds and at different arm angles.
They include the sinker, curveball, changeup, slider, cut fastball and fastball, which Hernandez used to throw 100 miles per hour when he entered the league in 2005, but now hovers in the mid-90’s.
Hernandez is the odds-on favorite to capture his second Cy Young trophy after an 11-2 record with a league-best 2.02 earned-run average. His 163 strikeouts are second-best in the majors, and he has issued only 29 walks.
The Mariners (52-46) lost two of three games to the host Angels (59-38) this past weekend and are in third place in the AL West behind Oakland (61-37) and the Halos.
Hernandez toiled seven innings on Saturday as Seattle won, 3-2, in 12 innings, struck out nine, walked four and allowed two hits with one unearned run. The outing was the 12th straight that Hernandez has gone at least seven innings and given up two runs or less, which tied an AL record.
Carl Willis, the former Seattle pitching coach, in a story written by MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince a few years ago, explained why Hernandez, who threw a perfect game with 12 strikeouts in a 1-0 victory against Tampa Bay at Safeco Field in August 2012, is successful.
“Unpredictability is the word,’’ Willis said. “You can’t really look for one pitch against him. He’s definitely special. The way he competes and the way he enjoys competing, you don’t see it very often.”
Hernandez throws hard, but it’s not the only reason why he’s able to get batters out. “Listen, velocity is great,’’ Willis said. “I think it’s a big part of why you see strikeouts increasing, with the power arms, particularly coming out of the bullpen. But regardless of the velocity, the key to it is being able to change speed off of whatever that top velocity or that average fastball is. That’s what Felix does. He pitches. I think he’s a better pitcher now than before.”
Hernandez agrees with Willis. “It’s true, it’s true,’’ he said. “It’s definitely true. Before, I had two pitches only. Just a fastball and a curveball. Now, I try to hit the corners with my breaking ball and changeup.”
Like most phenoms, Hernandez, who picked up his Cy Young after the 2010 season when he went 13-12 with a 2.27 ERA, had a career-best 232 strikeouts with 70 walks and six complete games, was scouted at 14, and signed with Seattle in the 2002 amateur draft at 16.
Hernandez, a five-time All-Star, has recorded eight seasons in which he has gone .500 or better including 19-5 in 2009, has a streak of five campaigns with 200 or more strikeouts, and has posted an ERA of 3.50 or lower eight times. “If you don’t have your best stuff you’ve got to go out there and fight,’’ he said.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at email@example.com.