Why all the fuss over King Félix?

By Efraín Ruiz Pantin

One hundred fifty-six wins? Really, “King” Félix Hernández, is that all?

We can’t blame you if that was your first reaction after hearing that Hernández beat the Miami Marlins, 10-5, on April 19, to tie Freddy García as the winningest Venezuelan pitcher in history.

And we get it. After all, Cy Young won 511 games. Okay, that was before World War I. But more recently, Greg Maddux won 355. Roger Clemens, 354. Tom Glavine, 305. Randy Johnson, 303. They all pitched well into the first decade of the 21st century.

On the all-time list, 156 wins is good for 238th place. One more rung than Andy Benes, Doug Drabek and Rube Walberg, all of whom won 155. It’s not like we’re talking about Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martínez and Nolan Ryan.

But Félix is King, certainly in his hometown of Valencia, Venezuela, because he came of age at the right time. In the ’90s, a massive invasion of scouts scouring the country for talent combined with the overnight growth of MLB academies to launch a baseball Golden Age that is still going strong.

And it happened just when the game was changing, placing the ball in the hands of closers. It wasn’t necessarily better or worse baseball. Just different. Starters were asked to go only six innings and give up three or fewer runs. What, win? Just give us a quality start.

It’s true that almost without exception, Venezuela hasn’t produced pitchers known for their durability. Hernández, 31 and in his 13th season with the Seattle Mariners, is currently out with an inflamed right shoulder. Johan Santana, the only Venezuelan who could challenge the King for his crown because he won two Cy Young Awards and threw a no-hitter, retired with just 139 wins in 12 seasons. And only six of those wins came after he turned 32. Despite pitching in the minors and the Venezuelan winter league, Carlos Zambrano never got back to the major leagues after turning 32. García pitched until he was 36, but by then he was way over the hill.

So, then, why all the fuss over King Félix?

The best way to appreciate the talent and glory of Félix Hernández — and that of Johan Santana and even Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez — is to put aside their wins and losses, a whimsical stat dependent on run support, reliable relievers and other variables, which is why it has lost luster in the metric age.

For instance, Nicaragua’s Dennis Martínez leads all Latino pitchers with 245 wins. Bartolo Colón, the Dominican graybeard starting for Atlanta this season, has won 235 games and counting. But no one would argue that they are better than Pedro, who won 219 games. Dennis Martínez, who retired with a 3.70 lifetime ERA, fell off the ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum after his first go-round. And Big Sexy, 44, could start for the rest of his life and get to 300 wins, but chances are he still wouldn’t get through the doors at Cooperstown.

Wins are simply not the best measure for King Félix, who sets you up with a heavy, sinking fastball and finishes you off with a changeup. He doesn’t even rank in the top 10 among fellow Latinos. At 156 wins each, he and García are tied for 13th all-time, behind Javier Vázquez (165) and Fernando Valenzuela (173).

Only when we immerse ourselves in metrics can we begin to appreciate why Félix is King.

Besides winning the Cy Young Award in 2010 and finishing second in the voting in 2009 and 2014, besides six All-Star selections and leading the league twice in ERA, besides overtaking Randy Johnson to become Seattle’s all-time leader in strikeouts, few starters have been as dominant as Hernández at such an early age.

How many pitchers have totaled 2,000 strikeouts and 2,400 innings before turning 32? Only 15 in all. And the only two to accomplish this feat whose MLB careers started after 1975 are Hernández and CC Sabathia. And, of course, Hernández is the only Latino in that select group of 15.

How many Latinos have pitched as many seasons with 200 innings and 200 strikeouts as Hernández, who has six to date? It’s a short list: Pedro (seven) and the one other pitcher born in Latin America who is in the Hall of Fame, Juan Marichal (six).

And how many Latino pitchers have totaled more than 2,000 innings and finished with an ERA lower than Hernández’s 3.18? Again, only three: Pedro (2.93) and Marichal (2.89) along with the Cuban left-hander Mike Cuéllar (3.14).

How many Latino pitchers have thrown perfect games? Just Dennis Martínez in 1991 — and Hernández on Aug. 15, 2012, when he beat Tampa Bay 1-0.

Adjusted Notions

Now that we’ve hopefully adjusted your notions on Hernández, let’s look at adjusted ERA, or ERA+, which takes a pitcher’s ERA and normalizes it across the entire league, accounting for external factors like ballparks and opponents.

Once adjusted, a 100 ERA+ represents the league average. So, 150 would be 50 percent better. The best career ERA+ is Mariano Rivera’s 205, not only an astounding total but also a whopping 45 points higher than the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, second all-time. But since Rivera was a closer who pitched only 1,283.2 innings, we won’t count him for the purposes of this discussion.

Among Latino starters with more than 2,000 career innings, Pedro is first with a 154 ERA+, followed by Santana at 136, Hernández at 126 and Marichal at 123. In short, exceptional company.

Not only that, Hernández has completed three seasons with a 170 ERA+ or higher. Pedro did it five times and finished another season at 169. No other Latino pitcher has managed a 170 ERA+ in a season more than once. And during Hernández’s career, only Kershaw and Zack Greinke — twice each — have done it multiple times.

So, then, why all the fuss over King Félix?

Because he throws hard, strikes out tons of people and excels according to the standards of his era. If, at the end of his career, he’s in the conversation with Pedro, The Dominican Dandy, Mo, or even El Tiante, properly known as Luis Tiant, the Cuban righty who won 229 games and finished with a 114 ERA+, then you’ve had a good life. Or in King Félix’s case, a royal one.

Featured Image: Stephen Brashear / Getty Images Sport