August 15, 2013 at 11:00 AM
Why Mariners’ Felix Hernandez is the modern-day Walter Johnson
By Jux Berg
Justin “Jux” Berg, an Ohio transplant, resides in Bellingham and lives for baseball, both past and present. He has been a fan of the Mariners since the day Ken Griffey Jr. was drafted.
When you watch Felix Hernandez pitch gems every five days for a Mariners franchise that year after year is not a pennant contender, you’re watching the modern version of Walter Johnson.
You may or may not have heard of Walter Johnson. “Big Train” was the lone star on countless lame Washington Senator teams from 1907 to 1927. Baseball-reference.com ranks Johnson as the greatest pitcher of all-time, and when you look over his statistics, it’s tough to argue. For his career, the fireballing sidearmer from Kansas won 417 games, had a 2.17 earned-run average and tossed an all-time record 110 shutouts.
The 417 wins rank second all-time to Cy Young’s 511. The argument could be made that the award for each season’s best pitcher should have been named the Walter Johnson Award, especially since Young accumulated more than half of his wins before 1900.
As for Hernandez, obviously the Venezuelan hasn’t been around long enough to join the “best pitchers of all-time” conversation. (Right now, he ranks 165th on Baseball Reference’s all-time list.) And, since King Felix has spent his entire career with Seattle, a team outside of the spotlight and miles away from the playoffs, his name is routinely left out of that conversation when considering the best pitchers in today’s game.
But when you stack up what Hernandez has done through his first eight full seasons next to what Johnson did during his, you see many similarities. During Johnson’s first eight full seasons, the Senators had a winning percentage of .499, while Hernandez’s Mariners check in at .455. As for individual winning percentage over those spans, Johnson posted a .628 while Hernandez is a bit lower at .579. Finally, look at a statistic called ERA+, which measures how a pitcher’s earned-run average compares to the average pitcher in his league — with a league average score being 100. Johnson had a 178, while Hernandez has a 129. Those numbers may not look very close, but remember: There were only eight teams in the American League in Johnson’s day; now there are 15, so Hernandez has more arms with which to compete. (Felix has had three seasons with an ERA+ over 160.)
The similarities continue when you take into account that Johnson won an AL Most Valuable Player award in his sixth full season. Hernandez won his AL Cy Young award in his fifth. (There was no Cy Young award in Johnson’s era).
I’m not suggesting that Felix Hernandez will finish his career as the greatest pitcher of all-time. Instead, I’m pointing out the hard luck shared by two incredible pitchers. And, when you browse the list of all-time greats, you won’t find any who pitched for as many bad teams as Johnson did and Hernandez has.
Hernandez’s Mariners have yet to come close to a playoff berth. Johnson didn’t taste champagne until his 17th season, when his Senators shocked John McGraw’s New York Giants in the 1924 World Series. By then, Johnson was 36 years old with over 5,000 innings on his arm.
Hernandez has already pitched eight seasons, and he’s signed for seven more, through 2020. Will the Mariners figure out a way to get to the playoffs by then? For the sake of Felix Hernandez, a man who (like Johnson) never complains and a man who re-signed with a franchise many agree is still nowhere near contention, I hope so. If not, we could be watching the greatest pitcher of all-time never to pitch in the postseason.
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