Examining Félix Hernández's Hall of Fame case after 2,500 strikeouts

Ben WeinribYahoo Sports Contributor

Seattle Mariners starter Félix Hernández joined elite company on Saturday when he reached 2,500 career strikeouts. Among the 35 other players to do so, 22 are in the Hall of Fame with five more — Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia and Max Scherzer — likely to join them before long.

Even more impressively, Hernández is the sixth youngest player to do so at 33 years and 33 days old. That only trails Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan, Walter Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver and Bert Blyleven.

But one day after reaching the milestone, Hernández landed on the 10-day injured list with a right shoulder strain. That’s the way things have been going lately for the one-time Cy Young Award winner.

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Once considered a surefire lock for the Hall of Fame, Hernández’s career has rapidly regressed, and he’s likely on the outside looking in for Cooperstown.

Mariners starter Félix Hernández once looked like a surefire Hall of Fame lock. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Mariners starter Félix Hernández once looked like a surefire Hall of Fame lock. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

How quickly things can change

As an easy rule of thumb, players who reach 50 career WAR are worthy of Hall of Fame discussion. It doesn’t make a player a lock by any means, and that’s not the only statistic one should look at, but it’s a good starting point.

Hernández reached 50 WAR at age 28. While leading the league with 236 innings and a 2.14 ERA, Hernandez eclipsed 5 WAR for the sixth straight campaign and finished second in Cy Young voting in 2014.

It’s a truly astonishing accomplishment only made possible by him busting onto the scene at 19, and it was hard to conceive of him not winding up in Cooperstown. But he has never been the same since.

Hernández still pitched adequately in 2015. His ERA regressed to 3.53, while his strikeout and walk rates went the wrong way, but he was still good enough to finish seventh in Cy Young voting. But his ERA has continually risen every year since from 3.82 to 4.36 to 5.55 to his 6.52 mark in 38 2/3 innings this season.

What’s different for Hernández?

Seemingly gone is the power pitcher who averaged over 95 mph on his fastball in his first three seasons. Hernández has averaged under 91 mph on his fastball since 2016 and has been under 90 mph the last two seasons.

Worse yet, his once-devastating changeup has gone from among the league’s best to below average the last three seasons. Hernández’s drop in fastball velocity hasn’t quite been matched with a slower changeup, and he’s had just a 3-5 mph difference between his heater and change the last three years.

Hernández hasn't had a swinging strike rate above 10 percent since 2015, and batters have had a 30-plus percent hard hit rate since 2017 — something that only happened twice in the previous 12 seasons. That’s led to him allowing a massive 1.7 home runs per nine innings during that stretch.

Does Hernández still have a shot?

All of this is not to say that Hernández is done; stranger things have happened, and he’s still only 33. Verlander was seemingly left for dead, and he’s back among the AL’s best pitchers at 36.

But a lot has to improve for Hernández to make the Hall. According to JAWS, which compares his WAR to other Hall of Famers, Hernández ranks 108th among starters, and he is 17 points behind the average Hall of Fame starting pitcher. He only ranks ahead of 11 Hall of Fame pitchers, although one includes the recently inducted Jack Morris.

Hernández is unlikely to reach his peak performance again, but he could really improve his résumé with a handful more years of league-average pitching. Getting his ERA back below 4.00 and his home run rate closer to 1 than 2 will be crucial.

Hernández’s massive seven-year, $175 million extension runs up this season, and it seems likely he will have to find a new team to pitch for next season. He wasn’t thrilled to lose his opening day honors for the first time in a decade, even if he hasn’t earned it through his pitching.

Perhaps a change of scenery will be for the best. Even if Hernández is too young to give up on, it’s hard to see him struggling in a Mariners uniform. Ace pitchers can fade fast — from Brandon Webb to Johan Santana — but Hernández will have an outside shot at Cooperstown if he can regain his health and a fraction of his old stuff for a few more years.

After all, the only pitchers with 3,000 strikeouts who aren't in the Hall of Fame are likely to make it soon: Clemens, Schilling and Sabathia.

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