The King’s Court knew what was coming.
“Fé-lix! Fé-lix! Fé-lix!” Mariners fans chanted as a teary-eyed Félix Hernández left the mound on September 26, their roar equal parts “goodbye” and “thank you” on this final Félix Day. The former ace was headed for free agency, and after another disappointing season for both team and pitcher, the rebuilding Mariners simply weren’t going to shell out for an injury-riddled righty long past the peak of his powers.
Which leads us to last week, when, amid a cycle dominated by MLK Day celebrations and impeachment and Boeing, the news of Hernández’s official departure surfaced quietly. Multiple outlets reported that Hernández had signed a minor-league deal with the Atlanta Braves. If he makes the big-league squad, he’ll earn $1 million next season (and possibly a bit more with incentives), a far cry from the seven-year, $175 million deal he inked with Seattle back in 2013. That contract was the culmination of an electrifying rise, one that not only captivated Seattleites but also fans around the league. His performance began to slip several years ago, in no small part due to injuries, and his career will always carry a whiff of “what if?” given the lack of talent surrounding him and, quite relatedly, the absence of a postseason appearance on his resume. But after 15 years with the club, King Félix leaves behind plenty of memories. Here's a handful.
A thrilling introduction to the bigs. You might not remember August of 2005 offhand, but if I told you it was the month when Félix made his MLB debut, you might be able to conjure a few very happy moments. The hype surrounding the Hernández was considerable when the righty first took the mound. Signing with the Mariners when he was 16, the Venezuelan was widely considered the game’s No. 1 pitching prospect by the time he reached the big leagues. The 19-year-old’s first month justified the title. After a five-inning, one-earned-run debut against Detroit, Hernández delivered five straight gems in August, going at least seven innings in each, allowing no more than three earned runs in any of them, and racking up 41 strikeouts. The Mariners had themselves an ace.
A season-long coronation. Four seasons into his career, Hernández was a disappointment and maybe only a couple of years away from being declared a bust. Following his promising first campaign, his ensuing 4.52, 3.92, and 3.45 ERAs simply didn’t meet the “generational ace” expectations thrust upon him. In 2009, he changed that narrative, finishing the year with a 2.49 ERA and 217 strikeouts and making his first All-Star Game appearance. He also had a career-best 19 wins, but more on that in a second.
Cy time. Hernández wasn’t an All-Star the next season, but he did win the league’s top pitching honor. King Félix’s first and only Cy Young Award with the Mariners is one baseball won’t soon forget. Though the sport had long valued “wins” as one of pitching’s most important statistics, Hernández’s performance in 2010 forced Cy voters to reconsider that priority. Tossing 249-and-two-thirds innings with just a 2.27 ERA, the ace only managed to collect 13 wins that season. The reason? An inept offense, a factor that definitely shouldn’t play into assessing a pitcher. In Hernández’s case, pundits finally came to their senses and looked past the misleading stat, a decision that would resound in the years to come as the sport became more data-driven.
The perfect game. Baseball has been around a very, very long time. So, when Hernández spun the 23rd perfect game in MLB history on Aug. 25, 2012, allowing zero Tampa Bay Rays to reach base at Safeco Field, it was a downright historic moment. Not convinced? There hasn’t been another one since.
The finale. Well, just watch.