On July 20th of last year Felix Hernandez spun a gem against the Yankees. The King threw seven innings, nine strikeouts, allowed two walks, three hits, and only one run against a lineup with Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Brett Gardner, and Didi Gregorious. Brooks Baseball had Felix’s average fastball velocity at 91.4 MPH.
Yesterday Felix Hernandez got crushed against what, in the early strains of the season, looks like a below average offense in the San Francisco Giants. He couldn’t get the first out in the fifth inning. Pablo Sandoval crushed a three-run home run off of him. His command was wanting the entire game. His fastball averaged 89.5 MPH.
It’s easy, when mourning Felix’s decline, to compare starts like yesterday to the incendiary, industrialized killing machine of 2009-2014. Pop in the tape from yesterday against any random start from that era and the gap between now and then is sufficiently vast as to make his current struggles a simple, logical, fact.
But that’s not how decline, or aging, often works. Felix is adamant that he is “still the same“, and I imagine he largely truly believes that. A major league career is not a binary between good/bad. He is less than a week away from a highly effective start against a Cleveland team that won 103 games last year, nine months from that dominant start against the mighty Yankees.
Rather, decline is simply a slow, inexorable, life-draining lowering of a player’s floor and/or his margin for error. To talk about it over simply, that’s all velocity really does; provides a margin for error on location. Felix at 91.4 MPH can dominate. At 90.8, as he was on Opening Day, he can be a shade or two below dominance. But Felix at 89.5 has to be perfect. It’s asking a lot.
Really, that’s the tragedy of all this. Felix isn’t Felix anymore, but he’s not anyone else either. He is Almost Felix, and on his good days, he approaches his former glory. Those days will grow ever and ever fewer, however, until they are gone forever. Baseball and life are far too cruel to allow for the process to play out quickly. In 2018, all we have to hope for Felix is that he wakes up on more good days than bad, and keeps the final act at bay for just a little while longer.