This story is over 5 years old.


The Man Who Would Be King Felix

Felix Hernandez has been one of the very best pitchers alive since he was a teenager. He's grown into something even greater, and is still growing before our eyes.
Photo by Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Felix Hernandez's 2000th career strikeout came on a picture perfect Sunday afternoon, Mother's Day, in the top of the fifth inning at Safeco Field. Oakland's Sam Fuld was the victim, caught looking at a fastball on the corner. At 29 years and 32 days, Hernandez became the fourth-youngest pitcher to reach that milestone. Bert Blyleven, Walter Johnson, and Sam McDowell all did it a bit quicker, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax just a tick slower. It probably bears noting here that all but McDowell are Hall of Famers.


When he collected his first strikeout, as a 19 year-old in 2005—it was Pudge Rodriguez—Hernandez was all braun, firing fastballs like unguided ordnance. He's since become a fair bit brainier, and notably more virtuosic; Hernandez seemed, for the bulk of last season's 248 strikeouts, to be several strategic steps ahead of every unfortunate facing him from in the box. On Mother's Day, two pitches before the 92mph heater that claimed Fuld, Hernandez dropped in an 80mph curve of giggle-inducing perfection. It was unfair. Ask anyone who haunts the baseball blogs, though, and they'll tell you that neither of those pitches matter nearly as much. The secret to Felix's ascendent dominance, we are mostly told, is his mastery of the changeup.

Read More: Mark Buehrle Is Sneaking Into The Hall Of Fame

The consensus is that Hernandez's changeup is one of the very best pitches in baseball. It's one he throws half as often as his fastball and, maybe most importantly, throws with blithe confidence at any point in the count. We'll leave the granular analysis for StatCast, but the evidence suggests that his confidence is not at all misplaced.

And there's the key: if Felix had remained a chucker, that confidence would be unearned. Instead he's become a surgeon, his pulse registering barely a blip regardless of the situation. This was both visible and palpable as he strode nonchalantly around the mound after #K2000. The pink-clad residents of the King's Court, the three-section swath of Safeco set aside in his name during home starts go berserk on "Felix Day," as they call it. This Felix Day, they were waving pink 'K' placards and shouting themselves hoarse, celebrating his two thousandth. Uncontained, you could call them, even within their designated section of the ballpark. But the man himself was all control, a mature and restrained individual, a professional in every sense in a uniform fully twice as big as necessary, a tattoo blaring brazenly off his neck.

That feeling when you are Felix Fucking Hernandez. — Photo by Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Now, about that neck tattoo. It's a stylized depiction of his astrological sign: Aries, the ram. Characteristics of those born under the sign of Aries, if you believe in such things, include independence, moodiness, and impulsiveness. Which is to say that getting an Aries-themed tattoo is a sort of self-affirming act, evidence mainly of itself. Hernandez got it before the start of the 2013 season, and so shortly before signing the extension that runs through 2019, with a team option for the year after that.

He's changed a fair deal in the three seasons that have passed since, most notably in the mastery of that changeup. As such that tattoo looks increasingly incongruous, a birthmark of impetuousness on someone who seems progressively less impetuous, and to possess more control over both the baseball and himself with each start. Hernandez is 7-1 on the season, now, and while wins are something of an antique statistic, the fact is the Mariners generally win when he pitches, and mostly flounder when he doesn't. The rest of his numbers—including a 2.19 ERA, and a grand total of 14 bases on balls scattered across nine starts—are suggestive of a cold precision. He gets cooler and gains more control, but that tattoo remains. Maturity looks and is different for those who spend their twenties making the best hitters in the world look foolish.

But it's also true that we are all Felix in a sense, if also less wealthy and talented. We all carry with us a motley assortment of old decisions, and the proof thereof; they are written on us, sometimes in places we can't conceal. We change, too, and we continue to live with what we've inscribed on ourselves and elsewhere. We are marked by youth but pulling ever away from it, watching it recede behind us. Felix Hernandez is not the boy he was when he debuted; he's better. Yet he remains a ram, and so the tattoo is still appropriate. Head down, he plows ahead, two thousand, and counting. He'll stop when he's finished.