Braves: Just how impressive is King Felix’s current feel-good story?

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Go ahead and add me to the list of Braves’ fans who are proudly (and perhaps prematurely) declaring 2020 a year of redemption for the soon to be 34-year-old Felix Hernandez. And as our own Harrison Coburn opined Monday night — after Hernandez threw five more brilliant innings in the Braves’ 2-1 loss to the Red Sox — King Felix “has pitched well enough to lock up a rotation spot.” 

Hernandez put together a gem versus Boston, striking out six and allowing just one extra-base hit on the evening while surrendering only a 4th-inning RBI-single to put his spring ERA at a cool 1.98 through four exhibition starts (13.2 IP). MLB.com’s Mark Bowman said it best in his write-up after the game, suggesting that if Hernández were to win one of the two available spots in Atlanta’s rotation, that “he will be the focus of one of Spring Training’s best feel-good stories.” 

A feel-good story is right, folks. If Hernandez can continue his impressive work this spring — resulting in a spot in the Braves’ 2020 starting rotation — this will be a season to remember. Although, if he’s able to continue this current performance AND excel during the coming regular season — well, that would be almost unprecedented for the Braves — at least in the last decade.

Now that it’s becoming an actual reality, the thought of King Felix being a key contributor for Atlanta in 2020 made me curious; we’re talking about maybe a handful of Braves’ starting pitchers over the last ten seasons that fit Hernandez’s potential storybook season (granted, none of them come with such a prestigious background). In fact, looking back at past seasons, I’ve counted a total of just four newcomers to the Braves’ rotation that have pulled off their own form of a redemption…

2018 — Anibal Sanchez

Sanchez should still be fresh on our mind, given he led the Braves’ starting rotation in ERA (2.83) during the team’s rise out of its rebuild and eventual NL East title.

In his age-34 season, the Venezuelan perhaps posted the most significant turnaround in decades when he came to Atlanta on a minor league deal, fresh off two seasons with the Tigers that featured a 6.41 and 5.87 ERA in 2017 and 2016, respectively. Sanchez had three-straight years of poor pitching in Detroit, but righted the ship in Atlanta during the 2018 campaign thanks to a deadly cutter and changeup. Without his veteran presence in the dugout and stinginess on the mound, the Braves would only have one division championship over these last two seasons, instead of two.

2016 — Bud Norris

At 30-years-old, Norris was looking for redemption when the Braves signed him to a one-year, $2.5 million deal in November of 2015, following a season in which he allowed a gaudy 6.72 ERA combined over 83 innings with the Orioles and Padres. But, given the Braves were in the middle of a rebuild, GM John Coppolella didn’t mind.

The former 6th-round pick wound up making ten starts and 12 relief appearances for the Braves, striking out 7.7 batters per nine and walking 3.6. Norris posted a decent 4.22 ERA while in Atlanta, although it resulted in him being acquired by the Dodgers in a June trade that brought minor league pitcher Philip Pfeifer to the Braves’ organization. His turnaround wasn’t as impressive as Sanchez’s above, but that 2016 season ultimately revitalized Norris’ career (at least for a while), though he was primarily used out of the bullpen in 2017 and 2018 with the Angels and Cardinals, respectively.

Aaron Harang / Gavin Floyd — 2014

The first season of the Braves’ four-year rebuild featured 33 starts from Harang (tied for second-most in the rotation) and nine starts from Floyd, as both newly-signed pitchers redeemed themselves during that year.

Harang was 36-years-old and had just posted a 5.40 ERA split between the Mariners and Mets the year before the Braves brought him in just days before Opening Day.

Over 200 innings later… the 6-7, 260-pound righty managed to cobble together a 3.57 ERA (3.57 FIP), plus 2.8 fWAR — his highest WAR total in 7 years. That bounce-back campaign in 2014 allowed Harang to catch on with the Phillies in 2015, where he completed his final MLB season before retiring.

Floyd’s resurgence was short-lived in 2014, ruined by a broken elbow in his ninth start of the season, after being signed by the Braves in December of 2013. As a former 4th-overall pick in the 2001 MLB Draft, Floyd had mustered a mediocre 4.48 ERA during his first ten big league seasons, before finishing with a 2.65 mark as a 31-year-old with the Braves.

Unfortunately, Floyd’s success with Atlanta didn’t translate like the others, as he only pitched another 44 innings in the majors, with stops in Cleveland and Toronto, though his elbow injury was one that has reportedly ended careers.

None of the pitchers listed above have accomplished what Hernandez has in the majors during his 15 seasons. As a 6-time All-Star and 2010 AL Cy Young, King Felix was at the top of the sport until about five years ago. However, Hernandez needs a turnaround year in Atlanta, and with a 5.42 ERA over his last 314 big league innings, hopefully, we can add King Felix to this list as well. You could say I was skeptical before… but I’m on board now. 

 

*For the list above, I only included starting pitchers that were both 30+ years-old AND were coming off poor seasons immediately prior to their stint with the Braves. My parameters for the exercise were rather arbitrary, but the goal was to list pitchers that were in a similar situation (performance-wise) as Hernandez. I’m sure there are more that could be listed.

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