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May 20, 2009 at 10:44 AM

Still waiting for the real Felix Hernandez to become staff ace of the Mariners

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Now that everybody is nice and worked up this morning over Felix Hernandez, I’ll throw some more logs on the fire. I still can’t understand why so many baseball fans in Seattle are so quick to set the bar excessively low for the players on this team.
I see it every day now as folks are quick to shrug off the 12 losses in 15 games by saying the team is playing up to its true talent level. Uh, excuse me? Not even close. Jose Lopez is hitting even worse than Yuniesky Betancourt at this stage — about 100 to 150 points worse in slugging percentage and maybe 50 points in on-base percentage lower than where the team needs him to be. His defensive range has taken a step back, which might be OK if he was hitting like Ian Kinsler. But he isn’t.
Adrian Beltre is killing the team in the heart of the order. He is a mere shadow of what he was expected to be with his bat. If not for his defense, which continues to be above average, he might be bumped from the lineup by a Class AAA callup.
Let those two start to hit the way they are supposed to — the way they are paid to — and then we can start talking about true talent level.
Stop letting this team off the hook so easily, folks. They’ve pulled this act before. This is a team that should be contending in a very weak division. It may not stay weak forever, but the Mariners, in true 2007 and 2008 fashion, have crashed and burned before they have to put that theory to the test. And maybe that’s the legacy these Bill Bavasi-era Mariners will carry forth. A team with talent that could not produce when it mattered. Some teams are like that. Some players are like that. The sooner this team sheds that legacy, either by players actually producing when it counts or getting shipped out, the quicker it can move forward.
Don Wakamatsu calling out Felix Hernandez the way he did last night is a small step in that direction. Hernandez is clearly not the biggest problem on this team and even calling him a “problem” is too much. But Hernandez, along with Beltre, Ichiro and maybe Erik Bedard, is one of a handful of players expected to help carry the team. I’ve left Ken Griffey Jr. off the list because I’m not sure what anyone truly “expected” of him given all the question marks surrounding his age/health etc. coming out of spring training.
But this team needed Hernandez to take a step forward. He showed signs of doing that all through April, but lately, in three of his last four outings, has taken a step back. Wakamatsu called him out last night because for the first time this season, his mental preparedness — especially his delivery times to the plate — seemed in doubt. And believe me, when a manager questions whether his staff ace showed up to the ballpark, that’s as close to a “tongue lashing” or insult, as it gets.
Many of you don’t like it when I compare Hernandez to Roy Halladay, who I covered for nine seasons. Well, Hernandez himself has said he aspires to be like Halladay, so if it’s good enough for him, it will have to be OK for the rest of you. In any event, I don’t care. Because Halladay makes for a very good comparison when folks want to chart how Hernandez is progressing.


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If the goal is for Hernandez to be merely a very good pitcher, then he’s already there. He has good enough stuff to get by a lot of teams even when he’s only throwing his four-seam fastball. Not every time out, but on a lot of occasions.
But if the goal is for him to be a true ace like Halladay — a perennial Cy Young Award contender and arguably the best pitcher in baseball since 2002 — then he still has a ways to go.
Halladay makes for a good comparison because he came up to the majors at age 21 for two games in 1998, getting within one out of a no-hitter the final day of that season. Obviously, that near no-hit bid — with players swinging away quickly and indiscriminately, like nine innings of Betancourt at the plate — raised fan expectations to great heights.
And Halladay spent the next three years trying to live up to those expectations.
Hernandez raised fan hopes here to great, perhaps unrealistic heights, by starting off the way he did in 2005 at age 19. Now, some three-plus years later, he is still trying to satisfy those early expectations.
The difference between Halladay and Hernandez is that the former, by 2001, had crashed to such lows that his entire routine and psychological makeup had to be redone. Halladay was shipped to the lowest levels of minor league ball, all the way down to Class A, to begin rebuilding his body and mind. He worked closely with sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman to develop a routine that would find him the consistency he was lacking.
But I make it sound too easy.
That routine turned Halladay into a pitching machine. Into a guy who wakes up at 5 a.m. and devotes every spare moment of every day to preparing himself to pitch that one time every five days. Nothing can intrude on it. Not his wife, his family, his friends, the media — nothing at all, Of course, he makes time for them. He is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Was far too nice at one point and kept trying to please everybody who asked something of him. Not any more. When it’s time to work, nothing gets in the way. On days he starts, he might talk to his wife, but doesn’t remember any of the details the following day. At least, that’s what he’s told me.
That is complete and absolute focus on his art.
Secondary things like delivery times to the plate never come into question. You never hear Halladay’s manager — and he’s had plenty of them — call his preparedness into question. This isn’t about ERA, or strikeout ratios or numbers. It’s about sheer winning and the ability to keep his team in a position to do just that.
And Halladay has done that since his fourth full season in the majors in 2002.
He has consistently put the entire package together, whether it’s wins and losses, ERA, innings, strikeouts, efficiency, or consistency. Try finding another pitcher who can consistently maintain that level of excellence. I’m not talking about perfection. I’m talking about consistency.
We all know Hernandez has the ability to look near-perfect. He has “stuff” that’s probably better than Halladay’s. When Halladay was coming up, we in the Toronto press corps liked to wager on who was the best between Halladay and rotation teammates Chris Carpenter and Kelvim Escobar. I used to put my bets on Escobar, who I still think has better pure “stuff” than the other two Cy Young winners.
But “stuff” only takes you so far. Ask A.J. Burnett.
The difference between really good pitchers like Hernandez, Escobar and a host of other arms around the big leagues, and true aces like Halladay, is the ability to be consistent. It’s to get to a level where fans no longer question your relliance on the fastball. Where your manager doesn’t question whether or not you’ve shown up. Halladay still gets shelled, as do all pitchers, including the greatest of all-time. But the preparation, approach and routine is unquestioned. And more often than not, that routine leads to consistent excellence and victory.
By his fourth full season, Halladay went 19-7 with a 2.93 ERA and threw 239 1/3 innings. By season No. 5, he went 22-7 with a 3.25 ERA and threw a whopping 266 innings to win his only Cy Young. His Fielding Independant Pitching (FIP) results for those two seasons were virtually identical to his ERA, so it wasn’t the gloves behind him — trust me, I was there — making a difference. But those major innings totals hurt his arm the following season in 2004 and caused him to alter his routine to the point where Halladay began employing a more pitch-to-contact strategy when needed.
As I’ve said, it’s not about strikeout totals or other pretty numbers for him. It’s about getting the job done.
He was en route to winning another Cy Young in 2005 before a line drive broke his leg a couple of days before he was slotted to start for the AL team in the All-Star Game. Last year, I thought Halladay should have beaten Cliff Lee for the Cy Young because the opponents he faced were far tougher while the important numbers were virtually equal.
This year, Halladay is an early Cy Young favorite, along with Zack Grienke. But whether he wins or not is ultimately not the issue. It’s about the consistency and being there game in, game out. Year in and year out. Halladay has gone at least seven innings in every one of his outings this year.
And so, when we make comparisons to what Hernandez might become, using Halladay as a benchmark is a pretty good exercise.
I’ve said it before, Hernandez began his career at an age two years younger than Halladay was. So, he’ll always have that edge. And he hasn’t had to rebuild his career in Class A ball. So, Hernandez has that going for him as well.
But he’s now into his fourth full year, about the time Halladay started putting things together, never to look back. If you want to debate the maturity difference between the average 25-year-old and the average 23-year-old, we can, but it’s a waste of time. I happen to think most guys in their early-to-mid-20s are all equal in their immaturity levels, with the few obvious exceptions.
The point is, we’re getting to the stage where maturity has to stop being used in the same sentence as Felix Hernandez. It’s still a valid excuse to a certain point. But that point is getting slimmer and slimmer. Which is why Wakamatsu called him out last night. He’s trying to fire Hernandez up. Hernandez does care about being a staff ace — that much I’m certain about. Those of you who say he doesn’t care really have no clue. I’ve seen him up close. He sounded casual last night, but you could tell he was mad at himself. That’s all fine and good.
But when you’re the staff ace, that’s not enough. When a team is relying on you to stop losing streaks and win, it’s not enough to try. You have to get the job done. You have to execute. You have to hone your routine to the point where it brings you that consistent level of excellence and things like delivery times are not even a concern.
If it sounds a little unfair, then maybe it is. But that’s the price of being a staff ace.
And Hernandez, to this point, was probably slightly ahead of Halladay in their career paths. He still is age-wise. But if we’re talking years-wise, major league experience-wise, he is starting to lag a little behind Halladay.
And maybe Halladay is the wrong guy to compare him to. Maybe Halladay is a once-in-a-generation type, like a Roger Clemens in the 1990s and early this decade, who can’t be matched. I don’t know. Hernandez received an awful lot of hype in 2005 without really having done all that much.
But he’s shown flashes of being able to sustain his excellence. Of being able to take that next step. Frankly, I think he should be flattered to be compared to Halladay. And judging by his own comments about how he wants to be like Halladay, I think it’s a comparison Hernandez welcomes.
Still, he isn’t there yet.
So, that’s why we keep making the Halladay-Hernandez comparisons. If the fans of Seattle are going to keep making demands of Hernandez, they have to understand what they are demanding. You have to know what the end goal is. It’s not as simple as saying “We want him to be like we saw Randy Johnson being in his heyday” because, for one, The Big Unit was a lefty and I don’t know that Hernandez’s career will get a second wind into his 40s. Halladay, I believe, is the more appropriate comparison.
It’s not about “stuff” — probably never was. And it’s not so much about being able to post a low ERA or strike guys out. At this point, it really is about Hernandez gaining consistency. In his pitch selection, his mental approach, his routine. I make it sound so easy, but it’s probably the hardest thing a pitcher has to develop.
It was for Halladay.
And it looks to be that way for Hernandez as well.
Photo Credit: AP

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