Can he really be 30 years old? Has it been that long since he was a chubby kid blowing fastballs by frustrated hitters, screaming in celebration of strikeouts and enchanting Mariners fans with his dominance and talent?
The King turned 30 Friday. Yes, Felix Hernandez has reached an age that people in their 20s deem “ancient.”
Like most 29-year-olds, he seemed to handle it well in the days leading up to the seminal birthday. Just don’t call him old.
“No, no, no, don’t go there,” he said this week. “I don’t want to think about turning 30.”
In some ways Hernandez seems older because he is in his 12th big-league season. He made his debut Aug. 4, 2005. Since then he has started 335 games and amassed 2,268 ⅓ innings for a 143-102 record with a 3.11 earned-run average and 2,148 strikeouts.
There have also been six All-Star appearances, two Cy Young runner-up finishes in 2009 and 2014, and a Cy Young Award in 2010.
He also has signed two contract extensions to remain with the team that signed him as a 16-year-old from Venezuela.
“It is amazing,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “The first time I saw Felix Hernandez was the year I was scouting. I was working for (current Mariners general manager) Jerry Dipoto with the Rockies. One of the teams I had was the Tacoma club.
“So I flew up there, and I was following the club and Felix Hernandez was pitching. I just said, ‘Wow.’ He was 19 years old. Just a few years earlier I had caught Kerry Wood in his rookie year (with the Chicago Cubs), and I said, ‘This guy is better than Kerry Wood.’”
Arm troubles dimmed Wood’s rise to stardom. He later returned as a closer and had some success.
Proud of durability
Hernandez was the opposite. Beyond his stuff and talent, the durability has been outstanding. He has made 30 or more starts in each of the past 10 seasons and has not pitched fewer than 190 innings per season during that span. Hernandez has logged more than 200 innings in his past eight seasons.
Of all his individual statistics, the 30-start, 200-inning barriers are most important to him.
“That’s what I like,” he said. “I want to throw as many innings as I can. After the season’s over, you want to look up and know that you’ve thrown over 200 innings. That’s the most important goal as a pitcher.”
That consistency is something most people marvel at.
“At the time, I didn’t know much about Felix,” Servais said. “He was 19 and just really, really special. It’s not surprising he’s had the career he’s had with the stuff he’s had. Staying healthy, the longevity, running out every fifth day and his track record really says a lot to what he’s been able to do. But it seems crazy to think he’s 30 years old.”
But don’t call him old. Any gray hairs that might’ve have appeared on his head have been crushed by a much-discussed bleach/dye job.
He thinks of himself as young.
“I don’t feel like I’m 30,” he said. “I feel like I’m 22.”
There’s a reason for that. Hernandez shed his chubbiness a few years into his career. And he has kept it off, understanding that his body would change with each passing year.
“You have to work harder, because you aren’t 21 anymore,” he said. “You have to increase your offseason program and be more aggressive with your offseason workouts.”
Workouts that are core- and leg-centric have helped him battle the fatigue and soreness which seem to come with age.
“I feel the same as I did when I was 21,” he said. “I don’t feel any different. I have my own routine. I do a lot of stuff in the training room and in the weight room, and it’s why I feel that way.”
Hernandez was blunt about his career path had he not changed his offseason routine and eating habits.
“I probably wouldn’t be pitching right now,” he said. “To be pitching that long in the big leagues, you have to a have a real routine and have a good workout program.”
‘I know how to pitch now’
But you also have to evolve. Hernandez is no longer the flamethrower of his youth. He has become a pitcher.
When he fiddled around with a circle changeup grip during the 2009 season and decided to start throwing it in games, he became an artist on the mound. It soon became his best pitch and changed his approach to attacking hitters.
‘I don’t feel like I’m 30, I feel like I’m 22.’
The emergence of the changeup loomed more important with the steady decline of his fastball velocity. He no longer rifles fastballs in the mid to high 90s. His average fastball the past four seasons has been right around 92 mph.
As he matured, his reliance on the fastball has dwindled. In 2008 he threw it 65.9 percent of the time. Last season, he threw it 38.7 percent of the time.
“I know how to pitch now,” he said.
Even at 30, Hernandez believes he has good years ahead of him. He hopes to pitch in a postseason game — something he has never done. To do that, he’ll have to be better than last season.
He went 18-9 with a 3.53 ERA in 2015 — good numbers for most pitchers, but not for him. He fell short of 200 strikeouts for the first time in six seasons. He also had a handful of brutal starts in which he was shelled and knocked out of the game early.
“It was a disappointing,” he said. “I was inconsistent last year. You know it’s a new season, and I’m trying to forget about that one and be ready for this one.”
Just don’t call him old.
“I’m only going to be 30,” he said. “I’m not 40.”