Professional baseball player
B orn Felix Abraham Hernandez, April 8, 1986, in Valencia, Venezuela; son of Felix Sr. (a truck driver) and Mirian Hernandez; children: Mia (with his girlfriend, Mariella).
Addresses: Office—Seattle Mariners, Safeco Field, 1250 First Ave. South, Seattle, WA 98134.
S igned with Seattle Mariners, 2002; pitcher for minor-league teams in the Seattle Mariners organization, 2003-04; pitcher for Mariners’ Triple A team in Tacoma, 2005; pitcher for Seattle Mariners, 2005—.
W hen Felix Hernandez joined the Seattle Mariners’ pitching rotation in August of 2005, he was only 19 years old, the youngest major-league pitcher since the 1970s. He was widely considered baseball’s best pitching prospect, with a 97mile-per-hour fastball, a strong curve ball, and a change-up that he used rarely but could aim very precisely. The six-foot-three pitcher’s confidence impressed fans: He had the words “Felix el Cartelua,” roughly translated as “Felix the Badass,” stitched on his glove. The Venezuelan rookie, part of the huge wave of Latin American players that swept into the major leagues in the 2000s, showed flashes of brilliance in his 2005 starts and early in 2007, but injuries and youthful nervousness under pressure led him to a mediocre record in 2006. His pitching in 2007, impressive by most standards, helped the Mariners contend for the playoffs, but he and his coaches alike agreed that he had not yet reached his full potential.
Hernandez was born in 1986 in Valencia, Venezuela, the country’s third largest city, 70 miles from the capital of Caracas. His early baseball hero was fellow Venezuelan Freddy Garcia, who pitched for the Mariners and the Chicago White Sox. In 2001, when Hernandez was 14, Mariners scouts saw him pitch and quickly pegged him as a hot prospect, impressed with his speedy fastball, sharp curveball, and mature confidence on the pitcher’s mound. “Right away, we knew he would be a special player,” Emilio Carrasquel told Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post. “He was so much better than anyone else. I called Bob Engle [the Mariners’ director of international scouting] and said, ‘Bob, you better come right away. We cannot miss this kid.’”
Other teams showed interest too, but Hernandez chose the Mariners. In July of 2002, he signed with Seattle for a bonus of $710,000. “I liked watching Seattle, and they tried the hardest to get me,” Hernandez explained toAlbert Chen of Sports Illustrated.
Even before Hernandez joined the major leagues, baseball insiders were buzzing about his talent. In April of 2005, Baseball America put him on its cover and compared him to Dwight Gooden, the New York Mets pitching legend who also joined the majors as a teenager. Herndanez spent much of 2005 with Seattle’s Triple A farm team in Tacoma, where he won nine games, lost four, struck out 100 in 88 innings, and compiled a league-leading 2.25 earned run average.
Hernandez debuted in the major leagues on August 4, 2005, at age 19, the youngest starting pitcher in the majors since 1978. Pitching five innings for the Mariners against the Detroit Tigers, he only gave up one run, and the Tigers only hit three balls out of the outfield against him. “What’s most impressive is his poise,” his veteran teammate Jamie Moyer told Chen of Sports Illustrated. “In Detroit he loaded the bases with no one out but pitched himself out of it, giving up just one run. He’s got the self-assurance to match his stuff.” In his second start, Hernandez shut out the Minnesota Twins for eight innings for a 1-0 win. After four starts, he had a 2-1 record with a very impressive 1.24 ERA and 30 strikeouts. He finished the season 4-4 with a 2.67 ERA. Hitters had only a .203 average against him.
As the 2006 season began, the Mariners worried about how to preserve Hernandez’s health, even as they relied on him to try to reverse their team’s fortunes after two losing seasons. By 2006, baseball managers knew that young pitchers who threw too many innings in a season often injured their arms, hampering the rest of their careers. Since Hernandez was even younger than most rookie pitchers, the team promised to carefully regulate how much he pitched. Shin splints that kept him from pitching for parts of March and April added to the concern.
Early in the season, Hernandez struggled. By mid-May he had lost four games and won only one, and his ERA was a disappointing 5.40. In five out of six straight starts, he was pulled out of the game before the sixth inning. Coaches said the early injury had set him back. “He got into some bad habits because of the injury,” Mariners pitching coach Rafael Chaves told Chen of Sports Illustrated. “He was trying to generate all his power from his upper body, instead of his legs.”
Hernandez, ever confident, insisted he was fine. He spoke to Chen of Sports Illustrated in English, which he was learning quickly. “I feel great,” he said. “I feel more comfortable [than last year], knowing the hitters better. Right now I’m making bad pitches at the bad time. One or two pitches different, [and] it’s a different game.” His strikeout rate, almost ten per nine innings, was better than in 2005, and his top pitch speed, 97 miles per hour, was the same.
Yet Hernandez finished 2006 with a losing record, 12-14, and a mediocre 4.52 ERA. By early September, hitters had batted only .221 against him with the bases empty, but .329 with runners on base. That was a sign that Hernandez often grew nervous in clutch situations, overthrowing and losing command of his pitches.
During the off-season, at home in Venezuela, Hernandez underwent a workout regimen and lost 20 pounds. When the 2007 season began, he excited fans and the baseball press all over again. On Opening Day, he shut out the Oakland Athletics for eight innings, giving up three hits and striking out 12. In an internationally televised April 11 start in Boston, Hernandez was matched against Daisuke Mat-suzaka, a star pitcher from Japan making his major-league debut. Hernandez stole the show, pitching seven no-hit innings before giving up a single in the eighth inning, beating the Red Sox 3-0 with a one-hit shutout. Hernandez’s performance “announced his arrival as perhaps the most dominant young pitcher in the game,” declared Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post. But on April 19, Hernandez left a game in Seattle in the first inning, complaining of tightness in his elbow. His injury, a strained forearm muscle, caused extreme worry among Mariners fans and the press, but he returned from the disabled list in mid-May. When he pitched 3 2/3 innings in Seattle on May 15, he gave up three earned runs and seven hits, yet relieved Mariners fans still gave him a standing ovation when he left the game.
It took Hernandez a while to recover from his time on the disabled list; he posted a 6.31 ERAin his first five starts after returning. But by July, he was back in top form, shutting out Oakland in eight innings two more times that month. The Mariners’ pitching coach had helped improve his pitching strategy, warning him not to use his fastball too much in early innings. With Hernandez pitching well, the Mariners contended for a wild-card spot in the American League playoffs, but eventually fell short, with an 88-74 record.
Hernandez, who made $420,000 in 2007, pitched the last game of the season, going 8 2/3 innings as Seattle beat the Texas Rangers 4-2. He finished with a respectable 14-11 with a 3.92 ERA, but told Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times that the April injury had kept him from doing better. “It was bad for me,” he said. “My first two games, I was feeling great. When I came off the [disabled list], for five or six games I was horrible. I couldn’t throw strikes.”
As the season ended, and Mariners coaches looked toward 2008, they said Hernandez would improve once he became a craftier pitcher and stopped giv- ing up so many hits when ahead on 0-2 ball-strike counts. Meanwhile, Hernandez’s top goal for 2008 was simpler: to avoid a serious injury. “First of all, I want to stay healthy all year,” he told Baker.
Chicago Tribune, April 22, 2007, Sports section, p. 2; July 8, 2007, Sports section, p. 10. Seattle Times, May 16, 2007; June 15, 2007; July 17, 2007; September 20, 2007; October 1, 2007.
Sports Illustrated, August 22, 2005, p. 74; August 29, 2005, p. 29; April 3, 2006, p. 54; May 15, 2006, p. 70; September 4, 2006, p. 55. Washington Post, April 12, 2007, p. E7;April 18, 2007, p. E1; April 19, 2007, p. E6.
“ESPN: Felix Hernandez Stats, News, Photos,” ESPN.com; http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/players/stats?playerId=6194 (November 23, 2007).