It’s tough to watch a once-great player go through the decline phase of his career. Detroit Tigers fans are watching Anibal Sanchez’s precipitous drop-off first-hand, while players like Victor Martinez and Jordan Zimmermann are teetering on the edge of a similar decline.
A more gradual decline may be even more difficult to watch, though. Seattle Mariners righthander Felix Hernandez was once one of the best pitchers in baseball. His starts were events, much in the same way that we call Justin Verlander “Must See JV” in his best moments. Hernandez compiled 34.8 fWAR from 2009 to 2014, the third-highest mark in baseball. He is arguably the best pitcher in MLB history that has never pitched in the postseason, and certainly holds that title for current stars.
Unfortunately, he is no longer the ace he once was. Hernandez has been worth just 3.9 fWAR over the past two seasons, and his 3.82 ERA was his highest since 2007. His 9.9 percent walk rate and 4.63 FIP were career-worsts. He was sidelined by a calf injury in May, but a steady decline in fastball velocity has many worried that his days as a productive starter — let alone King Felix, destroyer of AL lineups — are done.
He’s not done yet, though. King Felix has walked just one batter in his first four starts, and has a 3.65 ERA in 24 2⁄3 innings. He showed flashes of brilliance last season too, and has dominated the Tigers throughout his career. The Mariners will be hoping these trends continue tonight as they visit Comerica Park for an early season matchup.
Seattle Mariners (8-12) at Detroit Tigers (10-8)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Lookout Landing
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Felix Hernandez (2-1, 3.65 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 5.94 ERA)
Game 19 Pitching Matchup
If you were to just look at the box score, Jordan Zimmermann’s last start would be a cause for concern. He allowed five runs on 10 hits in six innings, and struck out just four Tampa Bay Rays — who happen to have the worst strikeout rate in baseball.
However, those paying attention may remember that Zimmermann’s performance came in That Game We Promised To Never Speak Of Again. The defense was almost entirely at fault for the two first runs Zimmermann allowed, and the Tigers still nearly won that bizarre event some are calling a baseball game. Zimmermann lost his command briefly in that contest, and allowed three quick runs in the fourth inning. He was otherwise solid, though. His fastball command was as sharp as I’ve seen it since last May, and he only walked one Rays hitter. After giving out five free passes in his previous start, it was a marked improvement, even if the score line wasn’t.
Key matchup: The bullpens vs. late inning leads
As mentioned at the tail end of the series preview, Seattle and Detroit boast two of the worst bullpens in all of baseball. The Tigers’ ‘pen sits dead last with a 6.63 ERA in 57 innings, while Seattle’s relievers have an ERA of 5.00. Both have been bad in similar ways, too, with their middle-to-late inning relievers picking up the slack for a lackluster closer. Nick Vincent hasn’t seen many high leverage innings, but leads the team with 0.2 fWAR in 9 2⁄3 innings. James Pazos and Marc Rzepczynski have done well in setup roles, similar to the Tigers’ Justin and Alex Wilson.
Meanwhile, the closers are a bit of a mystery. Edwin Diaz was a bullpen savior for the M’s last season, with a 40.6 percent strikeout rate in 51 2⁄3 innings. He has fallen far off that pace so far this season, with seven strikeouts and four walks in 6 2⁄3 innings. He only has two saves under his belt, and blew a third opportunity in the Mariners’ epic ninth inning collapse against the Los Angeles Angels on April 9.
The Tigers’ makeshift lineup will get its first real test on Tuesday with Hernandez on the hill. The Tigers had a lot of success against the back end of the Minnesota Twins’ rotation and bullpen over the weekend, but Hernandez’s array of off-speed pitches could provide a challenge the less experienced hitters in this lineup have never seen before. Being right-handed, Hernandez may even pose more of a threat than current Mariners ace James Paxton, a lefty that relies primarily on premium velocity. The Tigers have been a slightly below average offense against both changeups and curveballs this season, and they will see an abundance of both this evening.
The bullpens are oddly effective and the Tigers win a low-scoring affair.