A king in exile: The Braves hope Felix Hernandez isn’t done

When a Big Name signs a minor-league contract, it's because he has been reduced to a name. There's a chance Felix Hernandez will never throw a pitch that counts for the Braves. He's 33, which isn't that old, but he has done next to nothing since 2015, which was a while back. There's a chance this amounts to no more, if not less, than the Braves' signing of Jose Bautista in 2018, an experiment that lasted 22 days.

That said, Felix Hernandez was once such a Big Name he had a bigger nickname — King Felix. From 2006-14, he led big-league pitchers in FanGraphs WAR. From 2009-13, he was third – behind Clayton Kershaw and Hisashi Iwakuma, the latter of whom combined with Felix to form a tremendous 1-2 Mariners punch — in ERA.

As it stands, Felix isn’t quite a Hall of Famer, but he’s not far off. Over a seven-year span, he ranked among the top eight in American League Cy Young voting six times. He won it once and was second twice. His runner-up finish to Corey Kluber in 2013 — Felix had the lower ERA and yielded 37 fewer hits in almost exactly the same number of innings — remains a stathead talking point.

Maybe, probably, you knew Felix Hernandez more as a name than a reality. That’s understandable. He has worked only for Seattle, three time zones away. He ranks just behind Ferguson Jenkins as the greatest pitcher never to work a playoff game. That almost changed in 2014: The Mariners trailed free-falling Oakland for the second wild card on the season’s final Sunday; Felix did his part, limiting the Angels to one hit over 5-1/3 innings, but the A’s Sonny Gray shut out the Rangers. That was that.

That was also the last time King Felix was regal. From 2009-14, his fWAR was never lower than 5.3. His aggregate fWAR since is 4.2. His fastball stopped being fast: Per Brooks Baseball, he averaged 93.59 on his four-seamer in 2014; over the past two seasons, he has averaged 90.43. His change-up, once baseball’s best, stopped fooling people. Opponents batted .113 against his change in 2014; they hit .246 last year.

We mentioned that he’s 33, which is younger than Justin Verlander (36) and Max Scherzer. Felix has, however, logged many a mile. He was in the majors at 19. He worked 191 big-league innings at 20. From 2008-15, he never pitched fewer than 200 innings. His total over those eight seasons was 1,987, tying him with James Shields for the most IP.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but what the Braves hoped Julio Teheran would become — a guy with four “out” pitches, a guy who’d take the ball every fifth day, a true ace — King Felix was. His starts in Seattle were local events: Fans would brandish their gold K cards, the K topped by a crown. He was a great pitcher who was huge fun to watch, not that folks southeast of Puget Sound saw much of him. He made two career starts against the Braves, neither in Atlanta.

We missed him by a game in 2014. The Mariners had a midweek two-game set in early June at Turner Field. (Hey, remember Turner Field?) We were treated to Erasmo Ramirez working against the Braves’ Gavin Floyd — seriously, does anybody remember Gavin Floyd? — and then Iwakuma against Mike Minor, which was a fine game. (The visitors won 2-0.) We’d gotten to see the Mariners’ No. 2 starter, but we didn’t get Felix. He’d worked in the Bronx the previous Sunday, beating the Yankees.

Now he's a Brave, though for how long remains open to question. Four rotational spots figure to be taken by Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried and the newly imported Cole Hamels, who's three years older than Felix. Hamels cost $18 million. The Braves will owe Felix $1 million if he makes the big-league club. There's no great risk involved. If he has nothing left, it's no big deal. If he does, it's a big bargain.

So: Does he? Not off last year’s numbers. Of the 146 starters who worked 70-plus innings in 2019, King Felix was, again by fWAR, the sixth-worst. If we go by FIP (fielding independent pitching), he was fifth-worst. If we go by ERA, his having been 6.40, he 10th-worst. Shoulder issues limited him to 15 starts. His WHIP (walks/hits per innings pitched) of 1.53 was a career worst. His percentage of hard-hit balls (40.5) was a career worst.

Over his career, Felix has thrown 37,816 pitches. That’s an average of 90.5 over 419 appearances, all but one being starts. Five years ago, his name would have been included on any list of baseball’s best pitchers. Today it’s unclear whether he can shade Sean Newcomb to be the No. 5 starter on the 2020 Braves. Even if he outperforms modest expectations, we won’t see King Felix at his royal best, and that’s a shame. At his best, he was something to behold.