When Mariners manager Scott Servais announced that Felix Hernandez will start the season opener Thursday night at Safeco Field, it meant as many as 1,000 fans will gather in that left-field cheering section known as The King’s Court.
They will wear yellow T-shirts and, in a spirit akin to spectators at a soccer match, wave cardboard signs while chanting “K! K! K! K!” on those occasions Hernandez delivers a two-strike pitch.
Conceived in 2007, The King’s Court has thrived as the rare baseball promotion that goes beyond silly gimmickry. It engages fans with their favorite player, and exemplifies why a marketing department steeped in creative thinking might be the franchise’s most effective resource.
The time has come for additional creative thinking. Hernandez no longer should be implored to throw the strikeouts that rack up pitch counts. He should be implored to produce quick innings by allowing hitters to put the ball in play.
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Putting the ball in play does not generate the electricity of a strikeout. Pop ups and grounders and fly balls harmlessly lofted to the outfield are just plain old outs. The idea is to accumulate as many as possible.
There are situations – if the bases are loaded with less than two outs, for instance – when a strikeout is preferable to, say, a fly ball caught on the warning track. But for the most part, to borrow from the golf idiom, strikeouts are for show and plain old outs are for dough.
Hernandez has struggled to grasp the concept. He’s lost the hop on his swing-and-miss fastball, and yet in his heart, and in his mind, he’s still the power pitcher who averaged 221 strikeouts a season between 2009 and 2015.
Those were the prime years of King Felix, the years when fans anticipated any Hernandez start with the joyous refrain of “Happy Felix Day.” The season opener looms as another “Happy Felix Day,” but it might not turn out to be particularly happy if Hernandez exhausts his pitch-count limit before the fourth inning.
Complicating Hernandez’ transition from the fire-balling ace who can strike out a side to an efficient, serviceable starter is The King’s Court. He feeds off the energy of the crowd – it’s why fans connect with him – and when the crowd is chanting “K! K! K! K!,” that’s a lot to process for an intensely competitive athlete.
Calling it quits on The King’s Court is one. When Hernandez had the ability to push the radar gun past 95 mph, the promotion was an ideal fit for his strikeout-focused approach. He got psyched up by the noise, hitters got distracted by the noise, and the court offered a home-park advantage that now presents a disadvantage.
But I’m not keen on breaking up parties, especially parties as festive and family-friendly as The King’s Court. Keep the yellow T-shirt giveaway, keep the chanting, and keep the cardboard signs. Life is short and baseball games are long, so here’s to “Happy Felix Day” merriment.
The promotion, however, can be tweaked. It must be tweaked, because the more pitches Hernandez throws on long-count strikeout bids in the first inning, the fewer pitches he’ll be able to throw an hour later.
So here’s a thought: Instead of giving “K” cardboard signs to fans in The King’s Court, give them cardboard signs with the three letters spelling the magic word.
Hernandez regards his 10th consecutive season-opening start as an honor, and what posed as a potential dilemma for Servais was eased by the fact the pitcher more deserving of the assignment, James Paxton, is a reasonable type who understands the difference between starting the opener and starting a must-win contest, with a playoff berth at stake, 161 games later.
As for Hernandez, a savvy assortment of off-speed pitches figures to compensate for the absence of that lights-out fastball. But his adrenaline must be kept in check, and fans standing up and yelling “K! K! K! K!” tends to activate adrenaline.
Some advice for the King’s Court: Exchange your “K!” chant for “Out! Out! Out! Out!”
The Spanish word for “out,” as it pertains to baseball, is “out.”