Felix Hernandez will learn if he's Cy Young Award winner on Thursday
Runner-up last season, the Mariners right-hander has gone from a raw teenage talent to one of the most focused pitchers in the American League.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Arguably the most formative of Felix Hernandez's many pitching coaches says the pitcher's ability to quickly learn from mistakes made him what he is today.
Rafael Chaves, who coached Hernandez in the minors before joining him with the Mariners, said his former pupil should win the AL Cy Young Award on Thursday. Chaves remembers Hernandez as a gifted-but-raw teenager who overcame the inevitable setbacks quicker than many expected.
"It was easy to coach a guy like Felix because he had the ability and the aptitude to get better," Chaves said. "Delivery-wise, he was solid. But it was about learning when to throw the pitch, learning the hitters, figuring out how he got someone out. And we worked on that ever since we were in the minor leagues."
Hernandez later overcame temperament, focus and conditioning issues and now, still only 24, could join Randy Johnson as the second Mariners pitcher to win a Cy Young. The transition from unpolished phenom to elite starter has been witnessed by a plethora of pitching coaches — from Bryan Price in 2005, to Chaves in 2006-07, to Mel Stottlemyre in 2008 and Rick Adair in 2009 until Carl Willis took over the near-finished product this past August.
All agreed Hernandez displayed ability well beyond his years to learn and adapt.
"The one thing I've learned about Felix that I didn't know before is he's a very, very intelligent pitcher," said Willis, who coached Cy Young winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in Cleveland.
Willis saw a commonality in all three pitchers.
"All three of them are tremendously motivated to win and compete," Willis said. "They take every hitter, every inning, and narrow their focus down to the pitch at hand. All three have the ability to do that and avoid the big inning."
But Hernandez wasn't always so complete.
"I thought the most important thing for him was going to be a consistent work ethic," said Price, the pitching coach when Hernandez was first called up in 2005. "He was 19, and like most 19-year-olds he hadn't formed a work ethic or learned the level of effort needed to become consistent."
Price was most impressed by Hernandez's ability to throw three pitches — a fastball, curve and changeup — at an above-average level, reminding him of a young John Smoltz. "It was just a matter of getting that work ethic, which I had no doubt he would at some point. At that age, guys are usually entering college or their first year of pro ball."
The need for that work ethic became apparent the following spring, when Hernandez arrived overweight and spent the rest of 2006 adjusting. Chaves, who replaced Price that season, says Hernandez quickly realized he had to change.
"He learned from his mistakes," Chaves said. "In '06, he shows up in spring training and he's 20-25 pounds heavier than he's accustomed to. The second year, he shows up in '07 and he's 25 pounds lighter. And he's maintained that ever since. He only had to learn from it once. He knows that if you want to stay in the big leagues a long time, you need to take care of your body."
The pair also spent 2006 honing the two-seam fastball and changeup they'd begun working on in Class AAA. That two-seamer is now Hernandez's bread-and-butter, enabling him to get quick ground-ball outs and stay in games longer.
"I told him 'Your stuff is too great to have to work too hard to get outs,' " Chaves said. "He threw so hard, he could always strike people out, but those are the two pitches that helped him get quicker outs."
Stottlemyre took over as pitching coach in 2008, with Hernandez striving to learn hitters and mix his pitches the way Chaves had schooled him. Hernandez was intensely driven to improve and grew frustrated when things didn't work out.
"At some point in time, I thought he'd be a Cy Young winner once his temperament got better," said Stottlemyre, who coached Cy Young winners Roger Clemens with the Yankees and Dwight Gooden with the Mets. "It seems to have gotten better. It wasn't that it was terrible, he'd just been making things a little bit harder for himself."
Hernandez reminded him of a young Andy Pettitte in how he would react poorly after a bad pitch or blown call.
"Andy was worse," Stottlemyre said. "He fought himself worse. Only a lot of it was in the dugout between innings, where with Felix it became a little more visual.
"But that's all part of the development process in the major leagues," he added. "He's all business when he's out there now. He doesn't fight himself like before."
And Adair, who coached the pitcher his two best seasons, says the turning point in Hernandez's focus came after a May 2009 game. The Angels had stolen bases left and right off Hernandez, and manager Don Wakamatsu publicly criticized the pitcher for lacking preparation and focus.
Adair and Hernandez met the next day and discussed how Hernandez could better his focus. They discussed "posture" improvements to maximize his athleticism and help him better handle base runners.
"That's where his instincts and feel came in," Adair said. "He took what we suggested about posture and then added his own personality to it. You do that, you get results that are off the charts."
Hernandez followed a stellar, runner-up Cy Young campaign in 2009 by drastically improving his pitch-count efficiency in 2010. He focused less on strikeouts and more on getting as deep into games as he could.
"He's got unbelievable instincts to pitch," Adair said. "Sometimes, I think the biggest thing I did was stay out of his way."
Advice hitters might want to follow, rather than face a pitcher possibly destined for the first of many Cy Youngs to come.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
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