This has not been the season Felix Hernandez and the Mariners envisioned. After a great start to the year, the Mariners have faded in the postseason race, and they came into Wednesday 8 1/2 games back of a postseason spot with 18 to play. .
For Hernandez, he is struggling through the worst season of his brilliant career, one that saw him temporarily demoted to the bullpen. Felix has a 5.46 ERA in 151 2/3 innings this year. He's allowed 22 more runs in 2018 than he allowed during his 2010 Cy Young season while throwing 98 fewer innings. It's been a struggle all season, for sure.
The demotion to the bullpen was short-lived -- Hernandez made one relief appearance on August 14 before James Paxton landed on the disabled list and created an opening in the rotation -- though Felix took it hard. According to Scott Miller of Bleacher Report, Hernandez even considered walking away from the game after receiving the news. From Miller:
"I was like, 'Should I just take my cleats and go home?'" Hernandez says.
He was so despondent that his wife quickly scheduled a flight from the couple's home in Miami to meet her husband in Houston two days later.
"You've done great things," (Hernandez's wife) Sandra responded. "You need to have fun. Be the leader you've always been. You do a lot of clubhouse pranks. Have fun. You don't have to be serious. Don't change. Be who you are."
For a former Cy Young winner and perennial All-Star, being demoted to the bullpen is a kick to the gut. Hernandez spoke to teammates, former teammates, and other players around the league after the demotion, though Miller said it wasn't until Felix sat down with his wife that he began to get over the move to the bullpen.
Hernandez, now 32, has pitched a bit better since rejoining the rotation, posting a 4.50 ERA in four starts and 22 innings. He's allowed 12 runs in those 22 innings after allowing 11 runs in six innings against the Astros on August 7, in the start that led to him being moved to the bullpen. There's nothing Felix can do now to salvage this season, but at least he's finishing better than he started.
As much as Hernandez has struggled the last few years -- he has a 4.57 ERA in 391 2/3 innings since 2016 -- he is still young enough that he can carve out a second phase of his career. His days as a power pitcher are over. Getting old and losing velocity is just part of baseball. But Felix's offspeed stuff is plenty good enough and he's smart enough to manipulate hitters and still get outs.
Transitioning from power pitcher to finesse pitcher isn't easy and it can take time, but it very doable. Mike Mussina did it late in his career after struggling from 2004-07. More recently, CC Sabathia has made the transition after pitching poorly from 2013-15. It won't happen next year, but Hernandez has the ability to make a similar transition, with the demotion to the bullpen nothing more than a bump in the road.