Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander share more than highly prized right arms that have earned them a combined $333.3 million.
They made their MLB debuts a month apart, in 2005. Both are six-time All Stars who’ve won one Cy Young Award and have finished within a few votes of winning a second.
Each has benefited from playing in a ballpark with a spacious outfield. The notion of Hernandez wearing a home uniform anywhere but in Safeco Field is as inconceivable as Verlander wearing a home uniform anywhere but in Comerica Park.
Hernandez has made 364 starts, with 2,286 strikeouts over 2,442 innings. Verlander has made 367 starts, with 2,283 strikeouts over 2,426 innings.
Although Hernandez’ conventional stats (156-111, 3.18 ERA) don’t precisely mirror those of Verlander (177-110, 3.51), their lifetime Wins Above Replacement numbers look like this:
Hernandez, a 51.8 WAR.
Verlander, a 51.3 WAR.
Because Hernandez, whose bursitis ailment put him on the disabled list two months ago, was not scheduled to start until Friday, the longtime aces didn’t face each other during the Mariners’ four-game series against the Tigers. But as Verlander took the Safeco Field mound Wednesday, I found myself recalling his first visit to Seattle, on April 23, 2006.
The opposing pitcher? King Felix.
Verlander was a 23-year old who raced through the Tigers farm system after they chose the Old Dominion University star as the second overall pick of the 2004 draft. Hernandez, who signed with the Mariners at 16, had just turned 20.
The pennant-bound Tigers won that afternoon, 6-4, among the 10 victories Verlander collected before the end of June – an unprecedented rookie achievement that helped build momentum for his AL Rookie of the Year award. Hernandez went seven innings, giving up one earned run while walking one and striking out nine. Foreshadowing what would become a trend, he was charged with the loss. His record fell to 0-3.
So here we are, more than a decade removed from the April day the two phenoms were in the springtime phase of their careers, and it’s fair to wonder how much fuel is left in their tanks.
Verlander still packs plenty of velocity – he routinely clocked 96 MPH on the radar gun Wednesday – but control of the fastball has been a struggle that explains the spike in his walks/hits per inning rate, from 1.195 over his career to 1.449 this season.
Hernandez has also endured an increase in his walks/hits per inning rate – from 1.185 to 1.575 – as he copes with the challenging transition from power to finesse.
Hernandez and Verlander flashed Hall-of-Fame potential as kids, and matured to became top-of-the-rotation stalwarts who could be relied upon to take the ball every fifth day, month after month, year after year. They belong in any discussion about the best AL pitchers of their generation.
But Hall of Fame standards are maddeningly vague, forcing voters to consider both prime-season impact and sheer longevity. Sandy Koufax, for instance, was a 165-game winner and obvious shoo-in. Jamie Moyer was a 269-game winner whose candidacy likely won’t advance beyond his first year of eligibility, in 2018.
Hernandez and Verlander occupy that purgatorial gap between Koufax and Moyer: Staff aces capable of delivering a history-book gem on any given day – Hernandez threw a perfect game in 2012, Verlander has thrown a pair of no-hitters – but whose overall body of work probably would be judged a tick short of enshrinement if they were to retire after the season.
That won’t happen. Although Verlander leads the league in walks, and last was credited with a win on May 20, the 34-year-old showed vintage stuff against the Mariners. With a late-action fastball and spot-on curve, he threw 10 swing-and-miss strikes and 11 others that were called.
Verlander retired the first 16 Seattle batters before Jarrod Dyson ended the perfect-game bid with a sixth-inning bunt. Some old-school critics griped about the timing of Dyson’s ploy – bunting to break up a no-hitter is considered, um, impolite – but Verlander didn’t fault Dyson for igniting what turned out to be a game-changing rally.
Verlander was more frustrated that some delivery tweaks, involving his inconsistent shoulder level, weren’t made until Wednesday.
“I’m kicking myself in the butt, wishing I focused on these adjustments earlier,” he said after taking a no-decision. “But it’s a fickle game. You can’t look back. You can only look forward.”
As for Hernandez? At 31, he’s reached a point in his career where reinvention is required. When a fastball no longer flummoxes hitters, pop-outs early in the count are preferable to extended at-bats, with five or six foul balls, that may (or may not) produce a strikeout.
Something for those in the “The Kings Court” should think about Friday as they wield their placards and plead for a “K.”
Hernandez isn’t a strikeout force anymore, but if he’s takes Verlander’s advice – don’t look back, only look forward – he can survive, perhaps even thrive. Magic might be in short supply, but if Plan B proves pivotal in the Mariners advancing to the playoffs, what could be more magical than that?