It was a year to forget for Felix Hernandez. The regression he endured in 2016 was so abrupt and so sudden that even casual onlookers couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at his performance.
The 30-year-old was far from regal, despite a nickname he’d earned years prior. As his pitching suffered, he began to look less like King Felix and more like John Goodman’s King Ralph.
The Felix Hernandez we saw in 2016 was the product of a decade of indulgence, one that any athlete or ex-athlete over the age of 30 knows all about. There’s even a saying that sage veterans of sport will pass along to naïve young bucks, full of boundless energy and equipped with perfectly adept bodies: “Wait ‘til you’re 30.”
Yes, King Felix spent his 20s relatively fit and trim – all while needing to do very little to achieve such status. He enjoyed an adult beverage on the regular, whet his appetite with one flavorful meal after another, and was known to prefer the elliptical machine over the knee-straining labor of an actual run. And then, lo and behold, 30 happened.
You never see it coming, of course. It’s not as if the calendar turns and one’s entire physique suddenly erodes before our very eyes. No, it’s much more subtle than that.
A tweak of the back here, a sore hamstring there, a creak of the knee, a strain of the lat, the perpetual desire to nap, the inability to rebound from a night of drinking, all of the above and more. A spare tire emerges – where’d that come from? Metabolism is a thing of the past. Carbs linger, sticking to your ribs for days on end, dragging you down, seemingly unwilling to exit your system.
The 20-minute-a-day pseudo-workout that used to be good enough now does nothing at all. You keep getting fatter. You’re lazy, inadequate. You feel broken. You’re not young anymore. You’re fucking 30. There’s no going back. And you don’t know how to fix it.
But then one day you wake up and it clicks.
You realize that, damn it, you’re actually going to have to put in some effort. You’ll be spending an hour exercising now, instead of half that. You’ll introduce yourself to your mortal enemy, the treadmill, and actually jog upon its belt until your lungs hurt, your legs throb, and sweat drenches your t-shirt. You’ll cut back on the beer – along with the liquor, the soda, and anything else you’ve ever tasted and enjoyed. You’ll count your carbs, you’ll portion control, and you might even… diet.
It sounds absolutely miserable. And in reality, it is. There’s nothing pleasant about adjusting one’s lifestyle after age 30. But alas, it must be done to keep thriving. Felix Hernandez learned this the hard way a season ago.
For many, the numbers Hernandez totaled in 2016 wouldn’t be that upsetting: an 11-8 record, 3.82 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and 122 strikeouts. But for Felix, the problems went beyond the statistics. In particular, he witnessed a significant drop in velocity and struggled to locate his four-seam fastball, issues that, when combined, compound one another and raise a number of red flags for the future. Add to that a calf injury that limited him to just 153 innings pitched – second-lowest in his career behind only an abbreviated rookie year – and it was all a bit maddening.
Felix, to his credit, responded in a proper fashion: by getting mad. Thus, the Mariners’ ace hit the gym this offseason like a newly-single bachelorette looking to land Mr. Right before her next birthday. He worked out with the kind of anger and vigor that a man on the road to redemption needs to regain success. The end result proved fruitful enough that, despite appearing at Spring Training looking much leaner than a year prior, Hernandez somehow added weight in the form of muscle to his six-foot-three-inch frame. And when he wasn’t burning calories, he was consuming less of them than before, all of which contributed to a reshaped, revitalized King Felix.
Time spent training may not have translated to returns on the mound just yet, but the dedication to succeed is a step in the right direction. When one considers that the obstacles Hernandez encountered a season ago – reduced velocity and a lack of command – could easily be attributed to insufficient fitness, every winter rep should make a difference come Opening Day.
By the time he makes his second start of 2017, Felix will be 31 years of age. He is no longer a hard-throwing phenom able to rely on a mid-nineties fastball to get through nine innings. He may not even be a true ace at this point, no longer capable of fooling each and every batter with one of the best off-speed arsenals in the game.
But if Felix Hernandez can be better than he was a year ago, if he can simply be good enough, that disappointing age 30 campaign will be a thing of the past. And the Mariners should find themselves in the postseason for the first time in sixteen years.