Felix Hernandez Is Still Great


Felix Hernandez is not the best pitcher in baseball. He’s not even the best pitcher in the American League. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t still an all-time great in the midst of an impressive season.

For the Seattle Mariners, this has been a maddeningly rough season. The team returned much of the same group that came a game from the postseason in 2014, and there was reason to hope for improvement. The young guys would keep improving… and then they didn’t. The bullpen would remain steady… and then it didn’t. The lineup would improve… and then it didn’t. The rotation would stay dominant… and somehow, it hasn’t worked out like that.

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No part of the M’s failures this year feel more foreign and alarming than the rotation’s inability to stand out. It’s not even that they haven’t been terrific – it’s that they’re running a 4.18 ERA and 4.14 FIP, hanging out at 20th in the majors. They’ve been a tad below pedestrian, and it’s been especially painful considering that starting pitching is always their strength.

So Felix Hernandez. Felix has been the least problematic part of the Mariners pitching – he’s been far and away the M’s best pitcher, and is third behind Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager for the highest WAR total on the team. But to say it like that is to ignore that this has not been a typical season for King Felix. And it’s come at a time when another arm has emerged to challenge his longstanding place atop the American League.

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Tonight the Mariners are playing the Chicago White Sox at Safeco Field. It’s been an up-and-down year for the Southsiders – while they’ve outperformed the expectations of many, they haven’t lived up to their own (unrealistic) expectations, which were perhaps a bar set too high after the club attempted to speed up their rebuild with a flashy offseason. In a season where not a lot has gone right offensively, the club’s pitching just gets stronger. And Chris Sale is at the forefront of that staff – and the league as a whole.

Felix Hernandez is no longer the best pitcher in the American League, and it’s only in part due to his down season. No, this has more to do with the rise of Sale. You could potentially make an argument that Felix now also lags behind any/all of Chris Archer, David Price, Corey Kluber, and Dallas Keuchel, but the only one who’s obviously got a leg up on the King is Sale. And tonight the Emerald City will be treated to a pretty incredible matchup: Hernandez vs. Sale.

You like a good game with a storyline? How about the two best pitchers in the American League going head-to-head to see who comes out on top? Neither team is really playing for much these days, but each ace probably wants to make his case as the AL’s best. It’s the established standard-setter versus the newcomer who’s finally made his way to the top. And with two bad (but hot!) offenses in play, the stage could be set for some pretty incredible pitching.

Want to see something fun? Here, from FanGraphs, is the American League leaders in WAR amongst starters since 2012, the year Sale left the bullpen for good. Up at the top we have what more or less amounts to a three-way tie: Hernandez, Price, and Sale. There’s a big drop to the fourth-place guy, who isn’t even in the AL anymore. With his nutso 2015, Sale has bridged the gap between himself and Felix. And since we should be giving more weight to recent performance, it seems fair to say he’s now the AL’s best.

That’s just as of today, of course. What that WAR listing tells us is that these guys are basically in a dead heat to show who’s the class of the league. Felix’s 2015 hasn’t been what we’ve come to expect from him, but his track record has left him with enough benefit of the doubt that he could easily jump back to the “best in the AL” designation just by outclassing Sale tonight. They’re that close, which makes tonight’s game one of the most exciting of the year.

Chris Sale is the best pitcher in the American League – unless Felix Hernandez can beat him tonight. Then it goes back to being a coin flip. The King has been doing this for as long as anybody, and you’d think he’ll be fired up going against a guy like Sale. A King doesn’t just give up his crown, you know, which is why this might be the game of the year even though the season’s long lost.

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