For the last few years, Felix Hernandez has been the ace of the Seattle Mariners, and one of the very best in the game.
The team finally paid him like it, with the two sides agreeing to a seven-year, $175 million deal that will rightly make him the highest-paid pitcher of all time.
For a team like the Mariners, the signing of Hernandez is both a signal for the next phase of the team’s future, and perhaps a shot at teams like the New York Yankees, who have been waiting patiently to do exactly what Seattle did yesterday.
This is a team that carried a $84 million payroll into the 2012 season, and even with the added costs of arbitration raises and free-agent signings, King Felix will represent close to a quarter of the Mariner’s player costs in 2013. Barring a entry into the kind of territory that will see the M’s spend like its west-coast brethren in Los Angeles, that’s probably what the contract will represent for a very long time.
Will Hernandez be worth those kinds of dollars?
There are, of course, revenue benefits to be had for the Mariners by locking up its biggest star as far as franchise value and ability to draw an audience, but as for the on-field performance? That’s the $175 million question, and the answer is not always easy.
Though, it seems like it should be. After all, Hernandez will only be going into his age-27 season in 2013, and ranks among the top of MLB‘s elite over the last four years in just about every conceivable pitching category, whether you’re a traditionalist or SABR-minded. At the present time, there is no doubt that Felix will be able to perform up to his massive $25 AAV.
To continue doing so, though, he’ll have to perform at this peak over the entirety of the contract, and there is very little breathing room for error. Even a season like his 5.2 fWAR, 4.3 RA-9 win 2011 that saw him put up a 3.47/1.22 ERA/WHIP could be considered ever-so-slightly under-performing, even if Hernandez threw 230+ innings that year.
The innings count is another thing. Only cyborg Justin Verlander has thrown more pitches since 2009 than the Mariner’s young ace, which is to say that altough Felix is just entering his prime, he has quite the mileage of his arm compared to most starters his age.
It’s a curse of being one of the very best at such a young age, and there will be some warning signs to watch for going forward. The most notable might be the fact that he’s throwing less heat these days, with a steady three-year decline in his average fastball velocity settling at 92.1 mph last year, compared the 94.1 when he won the Cy Young in 2010.
There has also been a three-year decrease of his GB% (career-low 48.9% in 2012), coupled by an increase to his line-drive rate over that same time (career-high 22.5%).
Are batters having an easier time zoning in on Hernandez’s stuff? It seems like a silly question to ask, given how he has performed over the last few years; that said, Felix’s .242 BAA over the last two seasons ranks him 30th among starters – fantastic, but not elite numbers.
And that should matter, especially considering that the Mariners are essentially paying him for exactly that, and nothing less over the next seven years.