PEORIA, Ariz. — Now that he’s reached age 31 — not old by many standards other than professional sports — Felix Hernandez’s torso and arms have become further covered by an assortment of tattoos. A somewhat addicting hobby that began in his early, chubbier days as a Mariner has left few parts of his typically exposed skin without some sort of permanent marking, meaningful or otherwise.
On Thursday following the Mariners’ first official workout for pitchers and catchers, the longtime ace met with the media to give the state of, well, himself.
“We do this every year?” he said sarcastically.
Sporting a Mariners cap turned backward and clad in workout gear, including a cut-up T-shirt, a new tattoo was readily noticeable just above the collarbone of his left shoulder.
In cursive script it read: “I’m Different.”
Hmm … so what does the latest ink mean?
Hernandez played coy.
“You see it, it’s right there,” he said. “I’m a little different than anybody else.”
Different now? Different good? Different bad? Different just to be different?
Hernandez wouldn’t say.
“Just different,” he said.
The Mariners and Hernandez hope he’s a different pitcher from the past two seasons, specifically in terms of health.
Most people — well, maybe not Hernandez — have come to the realization that age and the 2,500-plus innings logged over 13 seasons have taken a toll. The concept of King Felix and his domination from 2009-14 simply isn’t realistic anymore. But the Mariners aren’t asking him to be that. They simply want him to take the ball every fifth day and give them a competitive outing. It’s something he hasn’t done the past two seasons.
In 2016, Hernandez spent six weeks on the disabled list because of a calf strain, posting an 11-8 record with a 3.82 ERA in 25 starts. A year ago, Hernandez had two stints on the DL because of shoulder bursitis. He missed more than eight weeks of the season, making just 16 starts with a 6-5 record and 4.36 ERA. The health issues coupled with mechanical inconsistencies have made his outings unpredictable.
“All I want to do is stay healthy,” he said. “If I stay healthy, I can do good things. That’s all I want.”
General manager Jerry Dipoto believes a healthy Hernandez is key for a starting rotation that has questions marks and concerns.
“Nuts and bolts, it comes down to how Felix comes into spring training,” Dipoto said a few weeks ago at the Mariners’ pre-spring luncheon. “If Felix can give us the 25 starts, or more than he gave us in 2016, we’re going to be a good team. If Felix gives us 16 or less, like was the case last year, we’re going to have to answer a lot of questions. I wish I knew the answer to which of those it is, but we’re going to find out here pretty quick.”
When told about Dipoto’s hope of 25-26 starts, Hernandez tried to raise the bar.
“It would be awesome,” he said. “I think I can make more than 26 starts. That would be great.”
The process to do that started at the end of last season and stretched into the offseason, when Hernandez finally was free of shoulder discomfort. It was an unexpected injury.
“It was fine in (the World Baseball Classic) and when I pitched in winter ball, and then early in April something happened,” he said.
Could that “something” have stemmed from the truncated progression early in the year and pitching at a high level for the WBC before building up arm strength?
“I don’t know,” he said. “No idea.”
In an effort to remain healthy this season, Hernandez changed his offseason workout routine again. After feeling as though he got too bulky in his upper body last season while working out with teammate Nelson Cruz’s trainer, Hernandez went simple this offseason — more cardio, lighter weights for upper body, leg strengthening and overall flexibility. No, the cliché of “best shape of his life” won’t be used to describe his appearance. But he looks more typical to his body style pre-2017.
“It was kind of different from last year,” he said. “Not as heavy (lifting), more cardio and stuff like that this year. I was stretching every day and working on my legs. I feel really good.”
Hernandez arrives like any other pitcher in camp, meaning he’ll operate on the same throwing program. In year’s past, it would be a week to 10 days before he stepped on a mound for a bullpen session. This year he’ll throw his first bullpen on Day No. 3 — Saturday.
“It’s not about the first bullpen or the first spring-training game,” manager Scott Servais said. “It’s about being ready to go when the season starts. I talked to Felix yesterday. He looks great. I know he’s happy to be in camp. He’s excited about being around his teammates. “
Hernandez shrugged off the new changes from his previous throwing program.
“That’s the past years, not anymore,” he said. “I didn’t throw many innings last year or in past years. So it’s fine. I’m just going to get out there and see how it feels and see what it looks like. I’ve been throwing (off flat ground) in Miami, and I feel pretty good.”
Hernandez was pleased about the offseason additions of outfielder Dee Gordon and first baseman Ryon Healy to the lineup, but he was blunt about the key to Seattle’s success.
“It’s all about pitching,” he said. “If we can pitch, we can win games.”
That’s a big “if” following last season’s struggles that saw the Mariners use 17 starters and 40 pitchers.
It’s similar to the hopes for him remaining healthy and re-harnessing his wandering command. Unlike past years, there’s more doubt than optimism surrounding the pitcher who holds nearly every major career record in franchise history.
“We’ve all got things to prove,” he said. “He’s one of them.”
But that provides Hernandez no such motivation.
“I just want to be healthy,” he said. “I don’t have to prove anything. I have to do my thing. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone else.”