The romanticism of baseball always gets to me. Give me a highlight of Ken Griffey Jr., Don Mattingly, or Cal Ripken Jr. and I am instantly transported back to being a teenager consuming every highlight I could. Give me a good story like Trey Mancini fighting cancer and looking like he will pick up right where he left off and I’ll have tears in my eyes as he gets a Spring Training ovation.

More than any other sport, baseball lends itself to those sort of relationships with players. We clamor for the young prospect to come up and transform the organization into its next winner. We love seeing the elite athletes continue to amaze us. We love those Cinderella teams that not only have stars, but those role players who feel like they are one of us. We love the drama of a game seven. As much as we love analytics and embrace them, the stories and the drama of the game always bring us back to why we fell in love with it in the first place.

We can count the Orioles signing Felix Hernandez as one of those stories steeped in the romanticism of the sport.

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After a brilliant 15 year run as the leader of the Seattle Mariners, Hernandez found himself having to prove that he could still pitch in the Major Leagues at the age of 34. In 2019, his final year in Seattle, he had the worst season of his career, finishing with a 1-8 record, a 6.40 ERA (6.00 FIP) in 15 starts. He threw just 71.2 innings and allowed 17 home runs. More concerning, his fastball velocity had fallen to 89 MPH. He signed a one year deal with the Atlanta Braves and looked like he was making strides towards putting the disastrous 2019 season behind him. He wasn’t the “King Felix” of old, but the Braves looked set to give him a rotation slot during a season that they looked to be a playoff favorite.

Then, Covid hit.

Hernandez opted out of the 2020 season, leaving many to wonder if he’d ever see a Major League mound again. After all, he had nothing to prove. In 15 seasons, he won 169 games, pitched to a 3.42 ERA, compiled 2,524 strikeouts in 2,729.2 innings. He had a string of eight consecutive years of pitching more than 200 innings. He has a Cy Young Award on his resume and was a six-time All-Star selection. Other than a World Series championship, Hernandez, quite literally, has nothing left to prove or gain from the sport. His Hall of Fame candidacy would—and still will—make for an interesting debate.

But, Hernandez wanted to return for the 2021 season. Evidently, there was some (little) interest, but Hernandez chose to sign—or perhaps it was decided for him—a Minor League deal with the Baltimore Orioles. One of the greats of his generation chose to sign with a team that projects to be one of the worst in 2021, all in the name of having an opportunity to be a starting pitcher in the Major Leagues.

He won’t be making much money by his career standards. But, as he said during his initial press conference with Baltimore writers, he is playing for his legacy. He is playing because he loves the game and wants to continue to add to his Hall of Fame candidacy. 

The romanticism sometimes makes it really difficult to watch the aging athlete. We wait for glimpses of what was, hoping to see that one flash of brilliance that was once consistent domination appears. When those glimpses come, we get transported back in time; we were younger, in awe of this amazing talent. When those glimpses don’t come around as often as we want, we become protective over those feelings, wishing that the veteran would simply move on so he does not tarnish that legacy.

That’s where Felix Hernandez is, at the intersection of hanging on for a glimpse of what was and the opportunity to reinvent. Either way, the legacy of Felix Hernandez is set; he’s one of the greatest of his generation. Nothing can take that away. He can, however, only build on that legacy. And, in that process, can only be a positive for the 2021 Baltimore Orioles.

Forget Romanticism For A Minute

Beyond the romanticism of the Hernandez playing for legacy, the Orioles’ signing makes perfect sense in 2021 for both the player and the team.

At first glance, one could say that the Orioles are giving a rotation spot to a veteran who will not be around when they are competitive at the expense of a young pitcher in need of experience. In other years, that argument could hold, but not coming off the pandemic year, a 60 game season, and no Minor League development. None of the Orioles’ pitching prospects, just like the rest of the Major League organization’s, will throw much more than 100 innings this year. Many teams are going with six man rotations in an effort to monitor workloads. No young pitching prospect will be pitching an entire season in a Major League rotation. With the Orioles’ young pitchers on the cusp and with the current state of the team, the Orioles need to be protective of those arms. And, because they aren’t going to contend this season, they have the luxury to slowly bring the young arms on the 40 man roster like Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Bruce Zimmermann, and Michael Baumann along. All will need rest, all will have innings limits. Bringing in a guy like Hernandez who is motivated to prove himself and is not tied to the long term success of the organization is the perfect move to protect the long term health of Baltimore pitching.

That’s a really long winded way of saying that Orioles need innings in 2021. Their young guys aren’t capable of safely covering them this year. And, if they are going to bring in someone, why not take a chance on someone with a 15 year track record?

Yes, that recent track record isn’t stellar, especially 2019. But, a closer look at Hernandez gives a glimmer of hope of him being productive in 2021. While that production will not reach the “King Felix” days, it could be at least league average. And, that definitely has major value to any club in 2021.

The narrative on Hernandez is that he has lost his velocity. The narrative is quite correct as Hernandez averaged 95.8 MPH in 2005 as a 19 year old phenom. That velocity has decreased in every season since 2008. And, more telling, Hernandez has used his fastball less and less each year, going from a high of 65.9% usage in 2008 to a low of 39.6% in 2019. But, even in that terrible 2019, he posted a 79.9 percent contact rate, just one percent higher than his career average. He elicited swings and misses on pitches thrown for strikes 13 percent of the time, right in line with his career mark. But, he failed to put hitters away, posting just a 17.5 percent strikeout rate, which is far below his career rate of 22.4 percent. More troubling, his hard hit rate jumped to 40.5 percent, compared to 28.2 percent for his career. So, if he’s still able elicit swings and misses, why is he getting hit so hard and not putting batters away?

That sounds more like a process problem rather than a stuff problem. Aging pitchers often have those types of issues. Now, Hernandez did battle injuries too, but with decreasing velocity to the point where his fastball and changeup velocity are within 5 MPH of each other, his approach is in need of change. Last spring—pre-pandemic—he looked like perhaps he was doing so.

This transition is one of the toughest to make. Many pitchers can’t, but since Hernandez has always deployed an above average curveball and slider with his fastball-changeup combo, there is hope for him. A little more than a decade ago, a pitcher with a similar repertoire had to either adapt or leave.

Former Orioles starter Mike Mussina looked done as a viable starter in 2007. He posted the worst season of his career, pitching a career low 152 innings to a 5.15 ERA and showing the worst velocity of his career. But, Mussina came back for an age 39 season with a new approach. Although throwing just 86 MPH, Mussina upped his fastball usage to 50 percent, up slightly from the previous disaster season. More importantly, he utilized a combination of a slider and curveball for 44 percent of his pitches thrown. That usage forced him to ditch his changeup. The new approach and aggressiveness of a throwing a first strike, allowed Mussina to flourish during the last year of his career. Like Hernandez, Mussina wasn’t a hard thrower. Like Hernandez, Mussina had good control of his secondary pitches. And, like Hernandez, Mussina came into the season with nothing, but negative expectations from analysts. Mussina was able to adjust his approach and have success because he was an elite level pitcher. Felix Hernandez has the same opportunity.

One will look at the results of his first Spring training outing with skepticism. He threw 2 innings, 1 hit, 2 runs, 2 walks, and struck out 2 batters. He averaged just 86 MPH with his fastball. On the surface, it looks bad. But, a deeper looks shows some positives. He went pretty unscathed in the first inning, allowing zero baserunners and striking out Niko Goodrum with a breaking pitch. It was the second inning where he seemed to tire a bit, a normal spring training occurrence. He still struck out a batter—on a breaking pitch—but walked two and allowed that single to score both runs. But, he threw 34 pitches and came out of the outing healthy.

The results don’t look great, but former Orioles’ Pitching Coordinator Rick Peterson once told me to put lesser importance on what happens in the “push” inning of an outing. It’s part of the natural build up for a pitcher and often that damage is done when they’ve pushed into a new workload area. That second inning, after a year layoff, Hernandez was clearly fatigued and battling mechanics. And, one thing to keep in mind is that he didn’t use his changeup. We shall see if this is a sign of a Mussina-like change in approach. He certainly has the arsenal. He’s had a year off to heal and he still has shown the ability to miss bats, even in his worst year.

What’s the best case scenario?

Felix Hernandez becomes a better than league average or league average starter, eats some innings, and then gets traded for something at the deadline, allowing the Orioles to turn a Minor League signing into an asset.

Worst case?

Felix Hernandez can’t adjust and he makes 5 or 6 terrible starts and the Orioles cut him. That’s a few innings less that the young pitchers have to cover.

Practically speaking, this is a no lose for the Orioles. And, the numbers give a glimmer of hope that this could work out.

About That Romanticism…

Felix Hernandez is attempting to win at the Major League level with a fastball that wouldn’t allow him to be drafted by today’s standards. He’s not playing for money, having made over $200 million in his career and swallowing his pride to sign a Minor League contract. He’s playing for the love of the game. He’s playing for his legacy and to try to enhance his Hall of Fame credentials. There’s a purity in all of  that.

And, for us? We get to see if he can reinvent himself. We get to see if he can take us back to our younger days, even for one game, one batter, one pitch. We get to see one of the best of his generation, perhaps for the last time or maybe, just maybe, add another chapter to one of the best careers we’ve seen. He attempts to write that chapter in a Baltimore Orioles’ uniform. The great is now the underdog. And, that makes this version of Felix Hernandez so easy to root for. 

Gary Armida
Gary Armida

Orioles Analyst

First and foremost, a Father. After that, I am a writer and teacher who not only started my own company and published an i-magazine as well as a newsletter, but have been published by USA Today, Operation Sports, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Digest, Gotham Baseball Magazine, and numerous other publications. As an educator, I have 20 years of classroom experience and am utilizing that experience in my current position as department coordinator. Wrote the book The Teacher And The Admin ( and operate that website which is dedicated to making education better for kids.