I interviewed former Mariners pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith about the many adjustments Felix Hernandez has had to make throughout his career and what makes him one of the best in the baseball.
As Mariners fans, we have all been blessed to watch two of the greatest pitchers in MLB history to take the mound every fifth day: Randy Johnson and now Felix Hernandez. Born in Venezuela, Felix could throw the ball 90 mph by the time he was 14 years old. “The King” or “King Felix” were nicknames given to him years before he ever had even pitched a game in the big leagues.
These facts illustrate the amount of undeniable talent and potential he had as an 18 year old in the Mariners’ farm system. With it has come enormous pressure to perform, and almost impossible expectations to live up to.
So often those expectations are set so high, but we rarely see them immediately come to fruition. It almost always takes more time than expected, and sometimes never at all. So often, just when you start to see it all come together, Tommy John or one of his unwelcomed relatives barges in and takes it all away.
Not Felix Hernandez, though. With no wasted motions, he defines perfect form with his delivery. That coupled with his strong 225-pound frame have kept him healthy throughout almost his entire career. Not that he needs it, but It can’t hurt that karma is on his side as well. A husband and father of two, Felix Hernandez is now a part of our local community, living in Clyde Hill in Washington. There, he’s a model citizen, and has never had his name mentioned in the news for anything suspect or controversial, whatsoever.
On July 20th, Felix Hernandez will return after just his second trip to the disabled list in his career. In this his 12th season, Hernandez has been dealing with what is amazingly the most serious injury in his career, a strained calf that has held him out for the last month and a half or so. Impressive enough on its own, King Felix couples his incredible stability and longevity with even more impressive accolades, including: The M’s first perfect game and “immaculate inning” (striking out the side on exactly nine pitches), 2010 Cy Young Award winner, and the first American League pitcher to hit a grand slam, and it came off another Cy Young Award winner–Johan Santana. Felix Hernandez is also the first player to ever have a stadium promotion dedicated especially for him, “The King’s Court.” He leads the Mariners in career wins (147) and strikeouts (2195).
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I could write forever about Hernandez’s great career in Seattle, but why not hear more about Felix Hernandez and pitching from someone who knows Felix and has done it himself? I had the pleasure of interviewing former Mariners pitcher, Australian Olympian, and incidentally the first MLB player to appear with a hyphen in his name, Ryan Rowland-Smith. (Here he is in his Australia team duds). Now, he’s a broadcaster for Root Sports NW, and the co-founder of an initiative to teach youth kids about baseball called “Next Generation Baseball”, or Nxtgen Baseball. A charitable man himself, Ryan spoke proudly about his unique path to the big leagues, and candidly about his career. Finally, he told me about his teammate and friend, Felix Hernandez.
CPF: First of all, thank you so much for corresponding with me on social media, and for agreeing to do this interview. According to my records, you became the first person from Newcastle, South Wales to pitch in the MLB, and you pitched for Australia in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. What was it like growing up there and pitching in the games?
RRS: Playing in the Olympics was a huge goal for me as a kid even before I knew what baseball was. See, in Australia the Olympics is everything. You could spend two weeks at the Olympics and that seems to be more recognized than 10 years in the big leagues!!! Playing for your country, especially Australia, is an amazing feeling; and that moment winning a silver medal was a special time for me. So much so, that I have the Olympic Rings tattooed on the back of my shoulder, and I am NOT a tattoo guy!!
You come from a sports family don’t you?
I come from an athletic family. My sister was an amazing surfer. My other sister was a great athlete, and both of them were way more academic than I was. My mum was a good athlete and national level swimmer, and my dad was a big influence in the fitness industry, and was a strength coach for pro surfers and rugby league players.
You have played in the Olympics, in the MLB, and in the World Baseball Classic, at what point in your career did you feel like you “made it”?
The point I felt like I made it… I made my debut and I was floating in the clouds after that moment, but for me, I wanted to feel like ‘a major leaguer’ and one game wasn’t going to accomplish that. I think making the Opening Day roster in 2008, and fighting my way into that bullpen, running onto Safeco Field and being a part of that roster constructed to win, that was the moment I felt like I made it, and was a Major League player.
You are a broadcaster now for Root Sports NW part-time, how is that going so far, and what else are you doing these days?
I want to excel in broadcasting, I love it. I love the Mariners’ community around the team and the fans. It’s such a positive environment, filled with amazing people, and it’s time the Mariners win because Seattle is a city that would go off in the playoffs!! Besides the announcing, fellow Aussie major leaguer Trent Oeltjen and I have started NxtGen Baseball, an initiative to train, educate, and inspire the next generation, primarily providing exposure and opportunities for Aussie kids, but also kids here in the USA. It’s an amazing feeling, inspiring a 13 year old to be the best they can be, no matter where they live or where they’re from.
You signed with the M’s in 2000, and played with the Mariners in 2007 to 2010, when did you first get a chance to meet Felix Hernandez, and was there anything about him that stood out to you right away?
I first met Felix in 2004, we played in Class “A” ball together. Back then, you 100% for sure knew the kid was special, and that is incredibly rare. You see kids all the time that are full of raw talent, but when your on ‘field 8’ in spring, you can’t truly predict a kid’s future. Not Felix. You knew he was going to be larger than life. He had everything in spades including: Command, Presence, and STUFF.
Felix Hernandez has shown a unique ability to remain a dominant pitcher, despite having an especially steep decrease in his fastball velocity. (He came into the league operating at 96-97 mph sometimes touching 99 with his 4 seam fastball. Now, he rarely throws a four seamer, and operates at about 90 mph with a sinker as his primary pitch.) Can you speak to what an achievement this is, and how difficult it is to do this, let alone do it at the perennial Cy Young Award level that Felix Hernandez has?
First of all, Felix would be dominant at 85 mph. There is a whole lot more to pitching that 5mph extra velocity. And most of all, Felix has honed in on his change-up, with a velocity of 85 mph and that dead-spin… finally, gravity just takes over. Felix has a unique ability to read hitters within an at bat, and can turn it up a notch when he gets in a jam. The biggest consistency in Felix though, is his demeanor. “The King” is so fitting because he is the ‘alpha’ in front of 45k fans. No one looks away, and everyone from the hitter in the box, to a young kid sitting as far away as the nosebleed section, they all know exactly who is in charge. Felix is so confident and even when he gets in trouble, you get that sense that the hitter must have somehow got lucky. Similar to Lebron when he does his powder thing to the crowd before the game, he has that straight primal body language that says, “I’m in charge, and this is my building.” Felix has that and it’s an amazing tool to have.
“everyone from the hitter in the box, to a young kid sitting as far away as the nosebleed section, they all know exactly who is in charge.”
Was there an adjustment you had to make during your career in order to compete at the major league level?
The adjustment a guy like me had to make was that confidence to pitch to contact. I was always an underdog. I was always told that I didn’t have the stuff to pitch. I was so competitive and I treated every at bat like me and that hitter were in a fist fight. Once I took on that approach, I had success as a starter. When I learned to ‘dump’ my curveball for a strike and was confident to pitch inside, that made a huge difference. The minute I started to listen to what was best for me from three different coaches, the mental side got to me and I never recovered. Looking back, I wish I had that fist-fight, cave man mentality later in my time with the Mariners, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.
Should we be worried about Felix Hernandez and his loss in velocity over the years?
I’m not worried about Felix’s velocity at all. Unless he starts trying to alter mechanics and it causes him an injury, Felix has so many weapons beyond his pitch and 100 ways to get you out. I’m not worried about his velo. All I’m worried about is his body of work, and I’m really happy with what he does every five days
You didn’t lose as much velocity during the course of your career did you?
My velo went up and down. I was throwing as low as 86-87 at one point, because I was trying to pitch through an injury, and didn’t want to speak up about it. When I was battling mechanics, and trying to appease my pitching coach in 2010, I had a dip in velocity because the body naturally slows down due to inconsistency in timing. I’ve spent the last five years studying biomechanics, and can’t wait to share my knowledge on the Mariners broadcast when the time is right. All things that I wish I had known as a 26 year old.
Thank you so much Ryan. I can’t thank you enough for VOLUNTEERING to help me out, and then to go into such detail & to be so candid with me. I appreciate it so much, and I know others will too.