BY John Hickey 02:13PM 03/03/2011

What will it take for Felix to catch Big Unit?

Cy Young winners Randy Johnson and Felix Hernandez chatted Thursday.

Felix Hernandez has been challenged to reach Randy Johnson's level - by Johnson / Getty Images

PEORIA, AZ – There was a time that Randy Johnson set the standard for how dominant a Seattle Mariner pitcher could be.

Johnson won the first of his five Cy Young Awards with Seattle as part of his evolution from erratic hard thrower to intimidating hard thrower.

It’s now the time for Felix Hernandez, who finished second in the Cy Young Award two years ago, then won it last year. If Johnson needs to be ready to give up his place in Seattle pitching lore to Felix, so be it. But the Big Unit says that time isn’t now.

Johnson and Hernandez talked for a bit before Hernandez’s 33-pitch simulated game Thursday morning in Seattle’s spring training camp.

So what did they talk about?

“Randy told me I needed to win four more Cy Youngs (to match him),’’ Hernandez said with a smile. “And he said I needed another 4,000 strikeouts to get him.

“I said, `Yeah, I’ll be there. Don’t worry.’ ’’

It was the kind of joking banter that is emblematic of spring training. But as it the case with all good humor, it resonates because there is a level of reality behind it.

Hernandez, who will the Mariners’ opening night starter in Oakland on April 1 and won’t become 25 until April 8, already has the one Cy Young and 1,042 strikeouts. Johnson, who pitched for 22 big league seasons, had exactly 25 strikeouts before he turned 25.

So to say that Hernandez has a chance to do what Johnson has done isn’t the stretch it would have been were we talking about virtually any other big league pitcher.

At the same time, Hernandez has a long way to go. He was asked Thursday if he can be better than he was in 2010, when he won only 13 games but led the American League in ERA (2.27, innings pitched (249.2), quality starts (30),opponents batting average (.212) and finished second by the Angels’ Jared Weaver in strikeouts by one with 232.

But when he was asked if he could be better in 2011, Hernandez didn’t even blink when he said yes.

“I think I can be better,’’ he said. “You have to get better every year. We’ll see.’’

The fact is that no matter how good a pitcher is, batters learn to adjust and adapt. They are alert for any ways he’ll tip his pitches. They’ll pick up if the fastball has lost a little jump. To keep ahead of the game, pitchers need to keep the same level of stuff and add a bit of unpredictability to the mix.

For Hernandez, that may mean throwing the fastball less. Or more; it works both ways. He may need to show the curve in different counts. Ditto the changeup. Whatever he does, he’ll be able to keep it in his back pocket until the opener. As long as he has command of his pitches, now he’ll be able to go to them when he needs to in his projected 34 or 35 starts in the regular season.

And on Thursday, there was every evidence that Hernandez is well on his way to having that command once again this season. He didn’t struggle even for a bit in the simulated game, his first competition against live hitters since last year. According to pitching coach Carl Willis, he’ll start against San Francisco Tuesday.

“It’s been a while,’’ Hernandez said. “I felt great. I’m ready. I’m feeling so good man. I was throwing strikes, the ball was in the bottom of the zone, (and) the breaking ball was good. The changeup was alright.

“Everything looked good.’’

Twitter: @JHickey3


YourThoughts

  • UncleWalter

    The fences should be moved in to make Safeco comparable to other ballparks.  It’s a depressing place for Mariners hitters; let’s try something else for a change.  Bring the fences in until the stats are the same as in Texas and let’s see what happens.

  • Zirkle

    How about developing some major league talent? Other teams have no problems hitting at safeco.

  • Tian Biao

    maybe it’s the lighting? or the hitting background? or the mound? or the distances? I have no idea, but the Ms execs should commission some studies and find out what the damn problem is. although zirkle has a point: lack of talent is obviously a factor. I mean, year after year, for at least five years, we’ve had high-strikeout guys who can’t draw a walk. And every year, in the spring, we hear that the Ms are changing their approach, and we are promised that THIS will be the year that the hitters are more patient and will draw walks and won’t strike out as much, and then a couple months into the season, we get to read articles like this one.

    Here’s a novel idea: don’t try to change anyone’s approach – just draft guys who already know how to hit, and draw walks, and shorten their swings with two strikes. In other words, get guys who are NOT like Saunders and Smoak and Liddi and Seager. That might work.

  • jafabian

    The M’s should consider having Edgar Martinez working with the hitters or at least get his input.  He was one of the few Mariners who hit well at Safeco, hitting for a .311 career average at both the Kingdome and Safeco Field however at Safeco alone he was over .300 until the last couple years of his career and even then he was hitting .248 at Safeco.  

    If the club moves in the fences all that does is make things easier for the visiting team.  Instead of losing games at a 3-1 score they’d be losing at a 9-6 score.

  • http://twitter.com/tyrell418 Tyrell Osborne

    Not hit like Seager? Are you an idiot? He’s one of our best hitters..

  • RadioGuy

    Uhhh, John, it may have been instructive to mention what Mariner OPPONENTS are hitting at Safeco this year.  That’s about the only stat you didn’t mention, but it surely would’ve helped bring a sense of perspective.

    Bringing in the fences isn’t the solution (why penalize your own pitchers?) so much as getting Seattle players to swing for line drives instead of long fly balls that MAY leave the yard.  I’ll take a blooper into shallow center over a warning-track out anytime.

    I’m a total broken record on this, but to win in Safeco, the Mariners need pitching, defense, hitters with GAP power and speed-speed-speed in the field and on the bases.  Home runs are great (and fun to watch), but they don’t assure you a winner…you still have to outscore the other guys whether the final score is 2-1 or 8-7.