For the second time in as many years, right-handed pitcher Felix Hernandez will be suiting up for a team other than the Seattle Mariners. The 34-year-old Venezuelan was signed by the Orioles to a minor-league deal Feb 3, and he’ll have a chance to work his way onto the major-league team.
Even though the 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner is well past his prime, former Orioles pitcher Steve Johnson is optimistic about Hernandez’s chance for a solid transition into the black and orange. Johnson was teammates with Hernandez in Seattle in 2016.
“It’s not going to be easy for him,” Johnson said on a Zoom with Stan “The Fan” Charles and Ross Grimsley, “but he has the talent to do it. It’s just how much is going to be there consistently.”
The 6-foot-3, 208-pound Hernandez will have to shake off some rust coming into this season, having not played in the big leagues in 2019. Hernandez signed a minor-league deal with the Atlanta Braves in 2020 and competed in spring training for a spot in the big-league rotation, but he ultimately decided to opt out of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Although the Orioles’ goal in signing Hernandez is ultimately to improve the starting rotation — “I don’t think [the Orioles] would have signed him if he didn’t have stuff that they like,” Johnson said — Hernandez may have a role beyond the diamond, too.
In 2020, the Orioles had one of the youngest teams in the majors with an average age of 27.4. Only the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners were younger than the Baltimore last season — 26.7 and 26.9, respectively. Hernandez could provide some much needed veteran leadership for this rebuilding team.
“Felix is a great teammate,” Johnson said. “Worst case, he’ll give some guys the opportunity to pick his brain, and there a lot of young guys that are going to probably have some success just from his experience that he is able to bring.”
Baltimore has struggled from the mound in recent years, though the Orioles did show improvement last year with a 4.51 team ERA. Hernandez could provide some much need veteran insight during spring training to help push some of the Orioles’ young pitchers to the next level. John Means, Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin should start the season in the rotation, and others like Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells may not be far behind.
Johnson said Hernandez helped him during his time in Seattle.
“You’re happy that a guy would come up to you and go out of his way to say hey or to treat you just like part of the team,” Johnson said.
The big question for the former perennial All-Star will be how he performs in Baltimore in the twilight of his career. Hernandez, who has a career 3.42 ERA, won 169 games from 2005-2019. He was once one of the most durable starters in the league, starting 322 games for the Mariners from 2006-2015. However, Hernandez is coming off one of his worst big-league seasons. He posted a 6.40 ERA in 71.2 innings in 2019.
Dave Johnson, the father of Steve Johnson and another former Oriole, suggested that Hernandez will have to change his game if he is going to have success in Baltimore.
“At some point that preverbal light bulb might shine brightly,” the elder Johnson said, “and he goes, ‘You know what, I’m not who I was. I have to be who I am.'”
Hernandez has lost his zip on his patented fastballs, though he had already begun transitioning into more of a finesse pitcher. In his Cy Young year of 2010, he threw his fastball 60.7 percent of the time at an average of 94.1 mph. In 2019, he threw his fastball 39.6 percent of the time at an average of 89.6 mph.
The elder Johnson suggested that Hernandez, entering his 19th year as a professional, will have to continue focusing on pitches like his curveball, which he utilized the most out of any pitch in 2019 (35.2 percent).
“Because so many guys throw so hard nowadays and guys are geared up to hit it … he might have to throw below hitting speed a lot more often than trying to hump up and throw the fastball,” Johnson said.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Atlanta Braves