Facing Felix Hernandez an exercise in frustration for opponents
The Seattle Mariners' ace may be fashioning another Cy Young season
He threw a perfect game on Wednesday and is on a second-half tear
Hernandez can throw five pitches and isn't afraid to use them at any time
SEATTLE -- Half-dressed and fidgeting, Dustin Pedroia tried to be busy at his locker during a portion of baseball's eternal downtime. The Red Sox were in the middle of a late June series in Seattle, and Pedroia, Boston's second baseman, was adjusting his gray T-shirt, which was tucked into his uniform pants more than three hours before the game.
Pedroia looked left, right, glanced at the television. A reporter approached to ask if he had a minute to talk.
"About what?" Pedroia asked.
"Why the [expletive] would I want to talk about that?" Pedroia, hands on his hips, voice rising, said. "I had forgotten about that [stuff] until you brought it up."
Pedroia, who was feigning belligerence, went on to explain in unprintable phrases the "stuff" which took place the night before against Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. Despite a big swing and small, 5-foot-8 frame, Pedroia rarely strikes out, but he whiffed twice and went 0-for-4 against the man known as King Felix, who threw a five-hit, 13-strikeout shutout against Boston by deploying 128 careening pitches.
"That wasn't human, man," the Red Sox' David Ortiz said afterward.
Other supernatural acts followed.
On July 14, Hernandez pitched a three-hit shutout of the Texas Rangers, a first-place team that leads the majors in scoring, in which he struck out 12 and walked none.
On Aug. 4, he turned Yankee Stadium into his personal sandbox with a two-hit shutout of the well-heeled, first-place New Yorkers, who rank second in the majors in scoring.
On Wednesday came the crown jewel for the King, a perfect game against Tampa Bay that included 12 strikeouts, including five of the last six batters he faced.
Hernandez, 26, started the season facing constant questions about his decreased fastball velocity. Now, equipment he used Wednesday is being authenticated and shipped to Cooperstown, N.Y. Hernandez's second-half dominance is mind-boggling: In seven starts, his ERA is 1.44, his WHIP is 0.64 and opponents are hitting .144, cursing at themselves, umpires and at Hernandez's unexplainable breaking pitches.
Hernandez has inserted himself into the core of this year's Cy Young race with a run that is akin to his second-half performance from his award-winning 2010 season, when he had a 1.53 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP and opponents hit .192 over those 15 starts.
The shrinking of his ERA coinciding with the trade deadline again prompted calls for the floundering Mariners to ship out Hernandez, who has two years and $39.5 million left on his contract. If they were to move him, something general manager Jack Zduriencik firmly and often says will not happen, the Mariners would lose their ace and soul.
Perhaps more importantly, they'd also be losing arguably the best pitcher in the American League, who has remained in that discussion by refining his craft. He now dominates with a blend of mystery and movement. The days of fighting with force are over.
"Back in the day, I'd throw in the middle of the plate most of the time," Hernandez said. "Now, I can control both sides of the plate."
The consternation around Hernandez's decreased fastball velocity started last season. His fastball averaged 93.4 mph in 2011 and 92.3 this year, according to Fangraphs.com. As a 21-year-old in 2007, he averaged 96.3. Concern about the slowdown peaked in spring training this season. Radio ramblers, bloggers and newspapermen all discussed it.
A month into the season, Hernandez stated his take on the radar gun readings.
"I don't care," he said.
Pedroia was convinced Hernandez was throwing in the mid-90s against the Red Sox during that June 28 start, though he was not. He also thought it had little relevance. He had a hard enough time with Hernandez's cutter, the first time he had seen that pitch from Hernandez, and struck out swinging in his second at-bat on a changeup. "It started away in the other batter's box," Pedroia said. When his swing was finished, the ball just missed hitting him.
"So, I wouldn't worry about fastball velocity," Pedroia said. "Just let him do what he does. How about you only write good things, because there's not a bad thing you can say. I had four at-bats against him. I got one good pitch to hit, I hit it in the gap, and the center fielder ran it down. Sometimes you don't get any."
Hernandez throws five pitches: A diving two-seam fastball, that veering cutter that advance scouts say he added in 2009, a speedy four-seam fastball, a tabletop curveball and an unfair changeup that no one often knows the final direction of when it's released.
This year, he's thrown cutters to left-handers and right-handers, both backdoor and front door, an atypical approach for a right-hander against a left-hander. Midway through Hernandez's shutout of the Rangers, Texas' Josh Hamilton didn't believe teammate David Murphy when informed this was happening. The Rangers were left wondering about another devil in the details.
Opposition consensus is to stay away from Hernandez's changeup, though he'll throw it on back-to-back pitches and in full or 0-0 counts. It usually travels 89 mph then drops as if it's a sack released from a helicopter. His arm action on the release makes it indiscernible from when he throws a fastball. One major leaguer said Hernandez's changeup was the best pitch he's ever seen because of its speed -- he threw two at 92 mph in the ninth inning Wednesday -- and depth.
Most can't even properly identify it.
"They all look like fastballs out of his hand, but it winds up being a breaking ball, or that split-finger-looking changeup -- whatever that thing is," Tampa Bay shortstop Elliot Johnson said Wednesday.
Two months earlier, San Diego's Nick Hundley had his own nomenclature issues.
"You never want to get to a point where you have to swing at his split or changeup, whatever you call it," Hundley said.
Hernandez's four-seam fastball usage has been reduced, taking with it his higher average velocity. Yet, he's producing numbers similar to or better than his 2010 Cy Young season. His strikeout rate (8.7 K/9 in 2012, 8.4 in '10), strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.95 vs. 3.31) and walk rate (2.2 vs. 2.5) are personal bests. He has done all of it for a team headed for its third consecutive last-place finish and one that might not sniff the postseason until he has long since left town.