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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

July 23, 2010 at 9:57 AM

Mariners wise to conserve Felix Hernandez’s workload

felix.jpg

(Felix Hernandez throws a pitch against the Angels in Anaheim last Friday. Photo by Associated Press).

Here is today’s minor-league report.

The Mariners have made many, many mistakes over the past few years, but one important thing they’ve done well — and this dates back to the much-maligned (and rightly so) Bavasi regime — is take care of their most valuable property, Felix Hernandez.

That includes limiting his innings in the minor-leagues when he was a teen-aged prodigy. It includes fighting to keep him out of the World Baseball Classic in 2006, when the last thing they needed was their 19-year-old phenom cranking it up full-gear in March.

And they’re absolutely correct right now in heeding the warning signs of Hernandez’s mounting workload. Next time you get frustrated with Don Wakamatsu for pulling Hernandez when he seemingly has gas left in his tank, imagine how devastating it would be to have Hernandez come up with arm problems. He currently has thrown 2,298 pitches, more than any pitcher in the major leagues except Jered Weaver (2,306). The Angels still have hopes of making the playoffs this year, so you can understand why they’d continue to push Weaver. But the Mariners have only one thing to play for: Next year. And they desperately need Hernandez for next year — far more than they need a particular victory this year.

Dave Cameron at USS Mariner was perceptive enough to point out the warning signs three weeks ago. I noted last October that Hernandez was subject to “The Verducci Effect,” which red-flags pitchers who could be subject to regression or injury because of increased workload at a young age.

You might say, as one of my colleagues did yesterday, that Hernandez is a big, strong hoss who can handle the workload. Perhaps, but the human arm is a fragile thing, and why tempt fate? Hernandez is a victim of his own brilliance, of course. Virtually every time out, he pitches well enough to last late in the game, which is why his innings, and pitch count, are mounting. It’s why he’ll always be among the leaders in pitches thrown; the current top 10 is pretty much all studs and All-Stars. He’s also a victim of his own competitiveness, which is one of the things that makes Hernandez so great. It’s understandable he’s ticked off when pulled out a game in which he’s pitching beautifully. But that’s why pitchers shouldn’t be part of the decision-making process when it comes to workload. They’ll always err on the side of gutting it out.

I get that it’s frustrating for everyone to see Felix pulled out of games in which he clearly gives the Mariners the best chance to win. That happened Wednesday against the White Sox, when Wakamatsu yanked him after eight innings of two-hit, shutout ball, and just 93 pitches. It may also affect his Cy Young chances, as Geoff pointed out.

But the M’s prime focus, in this lost season, must be on keeping Hernandez healthy, moving forward. Because if they don’t, they’re going to take a giant step backward — even farther than the reverse sprint they’re currently on.

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