The King’s Court should be in session for a little longer now, as ace Felix Hernandez agreed to a record-breaking, seven year, $175 million extension with the Mariners. Hernandez, coming off a fourth place finish in the Cy Young voting and the 21st perfect game in big league history, will enter 2013 at 27 years young, which could be surprising to some given that he already has eight Major League seasons under his belt. As a pitcher, there is little the “King” cannot do. He is a workhorse (200+ innings past five seasons), prevents runs (career 3.22 ERA), strikes guys out (8.3 K/9), keeps the ball on the ground (career 54.4 GB%), and has an excellent walk rate (2.67 BB/9). In short, Hernandez is on the shortlist for best pitchers in the game today and this contract is undoubtedly paying him like one. At $25 million per year, Hernandez’s AAV (Average Annual Value) is tied for the most among pitchers.
However, as good as Felix is and has been throughout his career, is this kind of investment smart? For 99% of pitchers, I’d vehemently say no. Pitchers as a whole are extreme risks, as we see hundreds of pitchers land on the DL each year. Even those with supposedly perfect mechanics (see Prior, Mark), can and do flame out just because of the very delicate nature of pitching. Just think about it; there are way more Mark Fidyrich’s, Fernando Valenzuela’s, and JR Richard’s, than there are Nolan Ryans. Pitching is a science and even now, we are still scratching the surface of very intricacies of throwing a baseball sixty feet six inches. Nevertheless, Felix is unlike 99% of pitchers and is among the elite in nearly every aspect of the art. For example, Baseball Prospectus’ pitching mechanic guru, Doug Thorburn, recently gave Felix much praise in his mechanical development since his Major League debut, (subscription required). While I would be very hesitant to invest that much money and years into ANY pitcher, Hernandez (along with Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw) is one of the few exceptions to that rule.
Additionally, I feel as though this is one move Seattle had needed to make. For years, Felix’s name has been whispered along the trade rumor grapevine, offering the potential of a king’s ransom (pun completely intended). Yet, with the on-field product continuing to struggle (last place finish in AL West in 2012), fans have shown up less and less to games. The past two years have brought about Seattle’s lowest yearly attendance figures since 1995, and the club actually drew about 100,000 less fans this year despite winning eight more games. The only reason this number isn't even lower is quite simply, because of the King. Seattle’s favorite son was signed as a 16 year old prodigy and has spent his entire career in the Mariners organization. The love affair is so great, that the left field bleachers during his starts transform into a yellow, manic, mob known as the King’s Court (hence the reference in the intro). For anyone that has seen the Court in action, they surely understand why Felix is so important to the club and city. He is Seattle. He is the ultimate Mariner. He is the King.