A throne is under siege in Seattle.
The position once held completely and undeniably by Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez is suddenly not a certain title anymore. There’s another pitcher in the ranks who has risen to stardom, albeit in Seattle and among the team’s rivals in the American League West.
Flame-throwing left-hander James Paxton is quietly and humbly making his case to be the new ace of the Mariners staff, to the tune of a 2-0 record to go with a 1.78 ERA and a 0.868 WHIP over 25 1/3 innings. Add in a 6-to-1 strikeouts/walks ratio and you’ve got a formidable presence on the mound in the form of a No. 2 starter.
Call him Prince Paxton, soon to be King James if it weren’t for a guy in Cleveland who already goes by that name.
Meanwhile, Hernandez is coming off two starts in which he’s given up at least four earned runs, including a Tuesday afternoon performance against the Detroit Tigers that only lasted two innings. That’s a Tigers team missing several weapons it would normally have in its lineup, like Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Jose Iglesias.
A lineup that once would have been an easy kill for King Felix was a chore. His fastball velocity was lower than it once was. His off-speed pitches hung high in the zone. Gone was the normally emotional Felix, and in his place was a man looking up at the sky for an answer that has been obvious for awhile now.
The King’s reign is over.
He left the game Tuesday with a tight shoulder, and he struggled last year with various injuries while recording some of the worst statistics in his 13-year career.
You get old, and you get injured. It happens. But if you’re not willing to hang up the spikes because of injuries alone, you have to find a way to reinvent yourself so that you don’t get injured as often and so that you don’t get hammered in almost every outing.
For pitchers, that’s about location, mechanics and mindset.
The problem is that Hernandez seems stuck in his old self, the one who could blow away any batter he wanted with a mid-90’s fastball and a devastating curveball. Many of the greats (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mariano Rivera, etc.) have relied on strong command of pitches other than a straight fastball to remain in the league for long periods of time.
King Felix is troubled by his ego, though. He loves the attention from the King’s Court, and the Mariners love it even more because it is an effective marketing tool to get people in the seats, even on a weekday when most Seattle fans would choose happy hour over $12 beer and bad baseball.
He probably knows his time is up, but he doesn’t want to relinquish his fame the Mariners have given him through the excessive hype before and during games. You see Felix’s swagger before every home start as the music plays during his entrance. But the swagger on the mound is gone, and while he tries to maintain it with velocity and plus pitches that have disappeared, Prince Paxton exceeds expectations, quietly, patiently and effectively.
King Felix has two options to preserve his failing kingdom.
- Fight maniacally to try to win back the riches he once owned
- Retreat to the highest room in the tower and hope his army prevails before he must surrender
He can’t do the latter because his ego hangs in the balance. He is currently doing the former, which is wildly ineffective to the dismay of Mariners fans hoping desperately for their favorite team to succeed again.
The King’s kingdom is crumbling around him, and if he wants to save it, he will need to do the one thing he probably never imagined when he was initially crowned. Felix Hernandez must develop a new arsenal rather than using the depleted one he is until it is exhausted.
In the process, he will have to concede the throne to Paxton, but it will bring glory when complete destruction is otherwise imminent.