Plenty of Room for Improvement for Hernandez

First Paseo, now Corey Kluber. It hasn’t been a good week for Seattle.

In a vote reminiscent of the separation between the Mariners and postseason baseball in 2014, Kluber edged Felix Hernandez for the American League Cy Young Award. Hernandez finished second, a mere 10 points behind Kluber’s 169, in the quest for his second career Cy Young, baseball’s recognition of its best pitcher for a particular season.

On the strength of 17 first-place votes, Kluber earned his first career Cy Young. In fact, it’s the first time the 28-year-old Indians ace has received a single vote for the prestigious honor. Hernandez earned the remaining 13 first-place votes and 17 second-place votes for 159 total points, while Kluber received 11 second-place votes and two for third (Chris Sale accounting for the other two second-place votes).

“What can I say,” Hernandez said. “They just vote . . . I do my thing.”

The vote came as a mild surprise. While Kluber had a breakthrough campaign, he trailed Hernandez in several categories by wide margins. Seattle’s “King” went 15-6 with a 2.14 ERA, .915 WHIP, .200 opponent batting average and 248 strikeouts in 236 innings over 34 starts. Kluber won a league-best 18 games for Cleveland, but trailed significantly in ERA (2.44), WHIP (1.10), opponent average (.233) in essentially the same amount of innings (235.2).

It seems a handful of voters were swayed in favor of Kluber thanks to a higher strikeout total (Kluber finished second in the AL with 269), a worse defense behind him and a more dominant final month, at least record wise. Kluber posted a 5-1 record with a 2.09 ERA over 43 innings in September, including wins in his final five starts. Conversely, Hernandez suffered three no decisions while going 2-1 with a 1.66 ERA and 0.90 WHIP in 37 innings. It was the solitary loss that did The King in.

In a game Seattle desperately needed, it trailing the Athletics by two games for the final AL wild card ticket, Hernandez took the mound September 23 against the Blue Jays. For four innings he was terrific. Then the fifth inning happened. Hernandez was tuned up for eight runs, four earned (after a hit was later ruled a throwing error on Hernandez), on six hits before being forced from the game after 4.2 innings. The Mariners took a 10-2 loss that night, suffered a 1-0 loss the following day and never recovered. It left many baseball analysts shaking their heads.

“That was tough. I’m a little disappointed,” Hernandez said. “It just give me more motivation to work harder and harder, and be better next year.”

Turning the disappointment into motivation is critical for a pitcher still with room for improvement. Hernandez may very well be the most talented pitcher in the game of baseball, but he is not always the most consistent. His record-setting run of 16 consecutive starts of seven-plus innings while allowing two or fewer runs from May through mid-August was certainly impressive, yet Seattle’s ace faltered when it mattered most.

In addition to the Toronto start, Hernandez was beaten by Oakland in its final series at Safeco, by the Nationals in late August and nearly by Yoenis Cespedes and the Red Sox. And for the second consecutive season, Hernandez failed to pitch a complete game. Much of the last two statements have to do with how he was managed by managers Lloyd McClendon and Eric Wedge, sure, but Hernandez’s fate still rests solely with him. Had Hernandez finished stronger, won those late starts Seattle needed, zero debate would have been proffered.

Hernandez, who turns 29 in April, needs to buckle down and pitch his best in the biggest moments. His manager needs to give him a longer leash in the second half of the season when circumstances call for it. And his offense needs to give him more support.

“It’s going to be a new year next year,” Hernandez said. “I’m going to prepare myself for next year. I’m going to prepare harder, be in better shape than this year.

“I can’t wait . . . Next year is going to be a great year for the Seattle Mariners.”

With those three improvements in 2015, the disappointment Hernandez and the city of Seattle feels this week, will be long forgotten.

That is, unless, Starbucks decides to shut its doors.

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