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Return of the King: A Mariners turnaround hinges on Felix Hernandez

From ESPN - July 17, 2017

Could the Seattle Mariners still make us "experts" look good? It's becoming less possible by the week as we creep closer to the trade deadline, and hopes for a sudden turnaround might depend on the impossible-to-read near future of King Felix Hernandez.

We are way past the point where we can reasonably hope for the return of the younger, dominant version of Hernandez. His average fastball velocity was 91.1 mph last season, per FanGraphs, and it's 91.3 this year. He just is not going to blow away hitters with raw stuff -- not anymore. Now it's about mixing pitches and setting up his change, curve and slider and getting ground balls with his sinker.

And that's fine. Hernandez has always been about much more than his once-transcendent stuff; that's why he should not be evaluated by his velo readings, but by his results. And that's why it's a concern that, more and more, the Mariners just do not know what to expect when King Felix takes the mound.

A glance at the sub-categories in mystarting-pitcher tier ratings tells this story. Hernandez ranks 13th in ACE rating, putting him squarely in the middle of Tier 2. That's front-of-the-rotation stuff. But while he ranks ninth in the frequency of dominant outings, he is just 30th in consistency. Since the beginning of 2014, Hernandez has had 13 starts in which he's given up at least six runs.

Hernandez worked in and out of trouble over a five-inning start against the White Sox in Chicago on Saturday, allowing one earned run and three overall. He gave up a leadoff home run to Melky Cabrera (leadoff homers are a bad habit he seems to have picked up lately), hit Jose Abreu twice, uncorked a wild pitch and threw away a ball on a relatively easy comebacker.

"Felix did not have his best stuff tonight," manager Scott Servais said afterward. "Struggled with his location and got behind hitters. But to his credit, he wiggled out of it and stayed away from the big inning."

The outing was Hernandez's fifth since coming off the disabled list, but it was first since closing the first half with six promising shutout innings against Oakland, when he gave up two hits and struck out a season-high eight. His Game Score (73) was a season-best and his highest since Sept. 21 of last season.

Game Scores of 70 or better were once a regular thing for Hernandez. He had 17 of them in 2014 and 11 or more in seven straight seasons ending in 2015 -- but he's had just five total such games since then.

With other facets of the Mariners coming together, his pre-All-Star performance seemed hopeful. Maybe that hope still shines, since Hernandez ended up getting the win in Chicago after all. Still, if the outing was not exactly a step back, it was a continuation of the up-and-down nature of this version of Hernandez.

"Battled my mechanics," Hernandez said. "I was all over the place. Ca not remember when I hit the same batter twice in a game. It's not a step back. I have been off for four days. That's what happens. You get into a routine every day, you feel much better."

Seattle badly needs Hernandez to settle into that routine and thrive in it. The problem is the Mariners might be one difference-making starter (in addition to James Paxton) from making a real push for the postseason. And everything from the design of the roster to the structure of the payroll demands that that guy be Hernandez.

Before the season, the Mariners were the most popular pick for an American League wild-card spot among the staff here at ESPN. There were nine different teams represented in that polling, which kind of foretold the cluttered wild-card race we are seeing right now in the junior circuit. But the Mariners were the most common selection, and I was one of eight who saw them as a contender.

I ranked Seattle ninth in MLB before the season, according to the preseason version of my power ratings. And even as the Mariners limped to a slow start, their ranking remained high through the mid-May, almost entirely on the basis of those preseason expectations. As the forecasts were gradually phased out of the power rankings formula, the Mariners dropped and eventually cratered at No. 21 on May 26.

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