SEATTLE — Even as the Mariners hold first place with Memorial Day fast approaching, one question — one concern, really — continues to simmer.
How secure is the King’s crown?
The numbers on Felix Hernandez are studied and debated with growing intensity. Analytics is baseball’s cold science, and there is a growing chill gathering around the Mariners’ long-time ace.
The 2.21 earned-run average he carries into Friday’s start against Minnesota at Safeco Field ranks second in the American League and would be the second-best mark of his 12-year career.
But Hernandez’s walks are up and his strikeouts are down. His velocity is down — and down significantly from his peak years — along with (no surprise) his swing-and-miss rate. He appears increasingly reliant on off-speed pitches.
These numbers and others suggest his 2.21 ERA is not sustainable, that a correction to the analytics-projected norm is inevitable and will likely be harsh when it occurs.
Hernandez rejects these concerns.
No surprise there. He is prideful to the core, a quality that has long fueled his intensity and success. But when he scoffs that, "I’m not worried about velocity. I’m just going to go put there and have fun," few believe him.
Even among the Mariners.
Club officials privately worry that when Hernandez sees the scoreboard radar readings, he reacts with wounded pride by trying to throw harder. That often proves counterproductive because it affects his command.
Hernandez seemed to validate these concerns after his last start — which, by the way, was six scoreless innings in a 4-0 victory at Cincinnati — by pointedly disputing the radar readings on his two-seam fastball.
"I was happy with the stuff," he said even while acknowledging that, at 104 pitches, he wasn’t particularly efficient. "Good change-up. Good fastball. They keep putting `sinkers’ out there (on the scoreboard).
"That’s not my sinker. It’s a change-up."
Even so, Hernandez is making concessions this season to his age (30) and, more importantly, to the toll on his arm from a heavy workload throughout his career. Specifically, he is again throwing between-starts bullpen workouts.
It seems to be helping.
His fastball has ticked up a notch or two in recent starts. Instead of 89-90 mph, Hernandez now tends to sit at 91-92 mph. While that’s not close to the mid-to-upper 90s neighborhood he once inhabited — is it good enough?
The News Tribune talked to three veteran scouts from opposing clubs after Hernandez’s recent starts to get their assessments. Two of those scouts are former pitchers. One was a power pitcher who had to adjust toward the end of his career.
Granted anonymity, all three were frank in their eye-test evaluations. In general, they see a great pitcher in transition, which mirrors the general analytical assessment. But the scouts also see a pitcher with the tools to remain dominant.
"Look, he’s a different pitcher now," one said. "He may not realize it, but he needs to adjust. And that’s tough to admit to yourself. It was hard for me, and I wasn’t close to his level.
"For so long, he could just rear back and fire. Not worry so much about location. That works a lot better at 97 (mph) or even 94 than at 90. You miss at 97, you can still win. At 90? Not so much.
"He’s got to pitch now. Not just throw. He’s got the stuff to do it, but he needs to adjust. Sometimes, I see him, and I think he gets it. But there are times, especially when he gets in a jam, where he’s all `more-is-better.’
"The problem (with that mentality) is you overthrow, you lose location and fall behind in the count. Then you have to come in. And when you come in at 90, you can get hurt and hurt bad."
Said another scout: "I know his velocity is down, but he needs to throw his fastball more. He’s stopped throwing it. Maybe he doesn’t trust it, but he gets off-speed happy. And his off-speed stuff is really good, but it needs the fastball.
"The key, though, is he needs to spot that fastball. He can’t play that macho game anymore. A lot of guys when they get to that stage don’t have the stuff to adjust. He does. His breaking stuff is good. His change-up is dynamite.
"But he needs to spot the fastball to make them work."
The non-pitcher in the group added: "What I love about his change-up is you can’t tell it’s a change-up until it’s too late. It comes in the with same spin as his fastball, and it looks fat. Then you swing, and the bottom drops out.
"It’s just nasty. Unhittable. But it works because you think it’s the fastball. If he doesn’t throw the fastball, it’s a lot less effective."
The second scout noted: "One thing that has always separated Felix from the pack is his fire. He competes like a son-of-a-(gun). That (quality) is a lot rarer than people think.
"He doesn’t need to lose that just because he’s not the fastest gunslinger in the West anymore. You redirect it. Instead of the macho boost you get from blowing someone away, you out-think the other guy.
"You beat him with your brains and your arm instead of just your arm. It’s the greatest feeling in the world when you tie a hitter up in knots. That just demoralizes a hitter, and you can feel it.
"You beat a hitter with pure power, and he tips his cap. He can accept that. But you out-think him, and you get in his head for the rest of the game. Maybe the rest of the series. And the next time you face him.
"Felix gets a taste for that, look out. He could have another five years; I mean another five big years. If he doesn’t adjust, he’ll continue to slide. He’ll be good for a while but not great. And then not even good. Just ordinary."
The former power pitcher said: "Every power guy loses his stuff after a while. And with Felix, there’s a lot of innings on that arm. So, sure, his velocity isn’t what it once was. Some guys just can’t adjust.
"Look at (Detroit right-hander) Justin Verlander. He was as good as anybody for a couple of years. But he’s older, and he’s lost a bit. Not a lot, but it doesn’t have to be a lot. Losing just a little makes a big difference.
"(Verlander) still tries to pitch like a power guy. Some days it works, but some days it doesn’t. The thing is, I don’t know if Verlander has the tools to pitch effectively any other way. But Felix does. The question is: Will he?"
The Mariners could face similar roster decisions in evaluating the "tweak" in center fielder Leonys Martin’s left hamstring that surfaced last weekend when shortstop Ketel Marte suffered a sprained left thumb.
Is the injury serious enough for the disabled list and, if not, is the roster deep enough to play short-handed for a few days? The Mariners chose to put Marte on the DL and recalled Chris Taylor before replacing Taylor with Luis Sardinas.
Utilityman Shawn O’Malley replaced Martin in center field for the final six innings in Wednesday’s victory over Oakland. Left fielder Nori Aoki has also played two games this season in center.
The Mariners play their next five games at home, which means they must decide whether they are comfortable with an O’Malley/Aoki combination at Safeco Field. (If Martin figures to miss more than five games, a roster move seems certain.)
If Martin heads to the DL, and a move becomes necessary, the starting center fielders at Triple-A Tacoma and Double-A Jackson, Boog Powell and Guillermo Heredia, are already on the 40-man roster.
Powell, 23, is batting .279 with a .343 on-base percentage in 39 games for the Rainiers. Heredia, 25, is batting .293 with a .386 OBP in 35 games for the Generals.
The decision to demote Taylor back to Tacoma after just one game — he made two errors on routine plays Monday in a 5-0 loss to Oakland — calls into question his future in the organization.
Taylor batted just .137 last year in 37 big-league games before struggling this spring in competition with Sardinas to be club’s utility infielder. His departure this week after one game underscores growing concerns among club officials.
The Mariners appear set for the foreseeable future at second baseman and shortstop with Robinson Cano and Marte. They see Sardinas as true utility player, while Taylor is limited to the the two middle-infield spots.
Further, the Mariners believe they have a rising prospect in Hi-A Bakersfield shortstop Drew Jackson. That seemingly puts Taylor in a box and positions him as a likely trade chip.
Jackson outfielder Tyler O’Neill continues to make a push for promotion after reaching base at least once Wednesday for the 40th time in 43 games.
The Mariners’ mantra of "controlling the zone" was particularly emphasized this year to O’Neill, a power hitter who struck out 137 times last season in 407 at-bats at Hi-A Bakersfield while batting .260 and compiling a .316 on-base percentage.
This season, O’Neill has a .311 average and a .373 OBP for the Generals while trimming his strikeout rate. He also continues to show power with 10 doubles and nine homers. He had 21 and 32 last year at Bakersfield.
It was one year ago Friday — May 27, 2015 — that Nelson Cruz splashed a three-run homer into the fish tank beyond the center-field wall at Tropicana Field with two outs in the ninth inning in a 3-0 victory over Tampa Bay.
The blast came against Rays closer Brad Boxberger and benefited Felix Hernandez, who pitched a four-hit shutout.
The Mariners continue their eight-game homestand by opening a three-game weekend series against Minnesota at 7:10 p.m. Friday at Safeco Field.
Right-hander Felix Hernandez (4-3 with a 2.21 ERA) will face Twins lefty Pat Dean (0-1, 3.68) in the series opener. The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners