As the Seattle Mariners embark on a new season, they look to build on the progress made in 2014. Last year, the team welcomed the addition of free agents Robinson Cano and Fernando Rodney, who brought stability to the batting lineup, middle infield and bullpen. Cano also provided valuable leadership to a young team that lacked any recent touchstones for success. Not surprisingly, the Mariners had to pay a steep price to entice Cano to sign, both in dollars (see new TV deal) and number of years. Although Cano will almost certainly not be able to perform at a high level through the end of his contract (until age 40; see figure below), the Mariners desperately needed to infuse a winning philosophy into the locker-room for its young players to develop. After one year, it looks like that is exactly what is happening.
In 2014, the youth movement that the Mariners set in motion was finally showing signs of paying dividends. After a rough start to a stuttering rebuild, youngsters Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino, Dustin Ackley, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton provide hope that a young, developing core is now in place. The youngsters progressed under the steady hand of manager Lloyd McClendon, who set high team expectations for the present, while developing young players for the future. Coming into 2015, the team’s prospects appear to be in better shape than they have been in many years.
The Mariners pitching staff was stellar for much of last season, was paired with an anemic offense that was clearly an area in need of improvement. The addition of Nelson Cruz was the most obvious upgrade during the off-season and should provide an element of power that has been missing from the lineup for the past few seasons (Mariners DHs hit under 0.200 last year). In addition, improved hitting may be expected to emerge from the natural development of Zunino, Ackley and shortstop Brad Miller. The expectation is that the offense needs only minor improvement for the team to succeed given its strengths in pitching and defense.
The Mariners starting rotation is once again led by staff ace, Félix Hernandez. Together with Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, Walker (who unleashed a new, devastating slider this spring) and JA Happ, the rotation looks like a potential juggernaught if the youngsters can deliver on their promise. Although everyone outside of Felix is somewhat of a question mark, the Mariners have some insurance against injuries/poor performance, with last year’s 10 game winner Roenis Elías waiting in the minors. Reliever performance from year to year is difficult to predict, but the Mariners return a collection of strong arms, while also working in spring training revelations Tyler Olson and Carson Smith. Moreover, it is difficult to predict the bullpen until we see them in high pressure situations (e.g., can the high wire act of the Fernando Rodney Experience be replicated)? Still, if the Mariners expect to compete in September and October, they will be looking for Felix to lead the way.
Hernandez possesses a wide repertoire of pitches and thus, has several options to get hitters out. Although he has yet to hit 30 years of age, Felix has been in the majors for a full decade. He has logged heavy innings in many of those seasons and has seen his velocity drop significantly from the MLB-best 96.3 MPH he averaged in 2007. Looking forward, it is interesting to ask whether this trend anything to be alarmed by. How much does Felix still have in the tank and given the array of pitches he employs, how important might future losses of velocity be?
Using data from PitchF/x, one can see that Felix is experiencing a loss of velocity as he ages that is similar to what other pitchers have experienced. For comparison, the figures below present maximum fastball velocity as a function of age or cumulative innings pitched for Bartolo Colon, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, C.C. Sabathia, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Adam Wainwright, Tim Hudson, C.J. Wilson, and Justin Verlander. The question is, how many quality innings are left in the arm of Felix Hernandez? By age, it looks like there could be another decade of similar velocity, but by cumulative innings, the horizon could be far closer.
Even with diminished velocity, however, Hernandez has continued to adjust, now showcasing various levels of movement on several versions of his change-up. Felix has continued to maintain his effectiveness (WAR in the figure below) even with diminishing velocity as he ages. In fact, it is clear that Felix has made adjustments throughout his career as his WAR has peaked twice, once as a high-velocity flame thrower and again as a slower throwing, but more seasoned pitcher. It appears that Hernandez has actually been at his most effective in recent years employing more movement and control to set batters up. From the figure below, the closest comparison appears to be Roy Halladay, who continued to add to his repertoire and remained effective through the latter parts of his career.
So for now, it looks as though Felix remains at the height of his powers. Last year was one of his best, which included a streak of 16 games with two or fewer runs over at least seven innings, and legitimate consideration for the Cy Young. How long he can keep performing at this level remains unclear, but this year he must deliver for the Mariners to reach the post-season. In addition to his own performance though, it will be equally compelling to see how Felix’s influence helps Paxton and Walker. Starting rotations cannot survive with only one or two pitchers, and ultimately the success of these two young pitchers will go a long way in determining overall team success. Although the season opens with a much potential and many unknowns, one thing is different this year.
The King finally has a team to lead.