- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SEATTLE -- As Louis the XVI said -- or at least as he said in Mel Brooks' "History of the World: Part I" -- it's good to be the king. Of course, most monarchs break in by gaining valuable experience as a prince first: taxing the citizens, bedding young maidens, slaying dragons, poisoning older siblings, that sort of thing. It's another matter entirely to learn on the job while still a teenager as Felix Hernandez did.
Hernandez reached the majors at age 19 in August 2005 with the "King Felix" nickname firmly in place, having had it bestowed upon him by the popular USSMariner.com blog two years earlier when he was still pitching at the Class A level. "All hail King Felix," the 2003 blog entry read. "Hernandez worked five innings last night against Spokane, allowing just one run on two hits and striking out five. He also walked four, but it's important to remember that he's only 17 and facing much older competition, including some college players. I'm trying not to get too excited about him, but it's difficult not to with the way he's pitched so far."
Hernandez reached the majors just two years later after blazing through the minors, pausing only briefly to pull a sword from a stone at Triple-A Tacoma. He frequently displayed his blue-blooded royalty over the next couple seasons -- a .203 batting average against as a rookie, 12 Opening Day strikeouts, a dazzling one-hitter against the Red Sox and 14 wins in his second full season -- but he also showed the inconsistency of big league commoners who do not reach the majors with official titles. He occasionally let his emotions get the better of him, ran up high pitch counts that limited his innings and was an unimpressive 9-11 last year (albeit with a 3.45 ERA). He was a mere three games above .500 entering this season, which under normal circumstances would barely qualify him as an earl or count.
The king's crown fits much better this season. Entering Saturday's start against the Dodgers, Hernandez is 7-3 with a 2.74 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 101 innings. (The win-loss record would be better if he pitched for a team that wasn't last in the majors in scoring; in his past four no-decisions he's allowed a total of three earned runs.) "He's pitching the way he should," Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu says. "He's pitching according to his talent level. ... Maturity is a word that comes to mind."
If maturity arrived after royalty was bestowed, there is good reason. Despite having nearly four full seasons in the majors, Hernandez is still only 23, still the youngest player on his team and still younger than all but 13 starting pitchers in current big league rotations.
"My maturity is better and my confidence is better and I know the league a little bit better," says Hernandez, a native Venezuelan whose English has become fluent since he needed an interpreter his rookie season. "I know the hitters. I have more command of both sides of the plate. When I come up to the big leagues I threw hard but I didn't have the command I have now."
Still, he is 23 and susceptible on occasion to all that young age means. Wakamatsu considered the way Hernandez failed to hold the baserunners in a May loss so unacceptable that the very controlled manager delivered a public scolding in his postgame interview session with reporters.
"We had several conversations before that so it wasn't that all of a sudden that I called him out on it," Wakamatsu says. "I think that was another form of getting to him, like 'Enough is enough.' People see what I see, that he should be controlling the running game, that he should be more efficient with his delivery and all that. He's competed every time he's gone out since then. It's what he wants to do, too."
Wakamatsu wanted to see more consistency from Hernandez and he has. Since the talk, the pitcher has allowed more than one earned run only once (including a stretch of 18 consecutive scoreless innings). The national focus has been on Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay, but over the past month, Hernandez has been the league's best pitcher.
"He's learned how to pitch more because there are days when he doesn't have his best fastball," teammate Miguel Batista says. "And that has been very good for him, because that's teaching him to throw something other than his fastball. And if you'll notice, he's not giving up that many long balls anymore (two in his past eight starts). That's something we've tried preaching to him a lot: Movement means more than speed. And he has both."
Such has been the Mariners' managerial turnover that Hernandez is on his fourth pitching coach, Rick Adair, who says the pitcher has a better understanding of how to adjust to situations. Hernandez also is not letting a hit or a bad break affect him as much or as frequently as in the past. Third baseman Adrian Beltre and Batista talked to him extensively about controlling his emotions and hiding his frustration from opponents ready to jump on any sign of weakness.
"He let the emotions take him out of his rhythm and concentration," Batista says. "But you also can't take the emotions out of a guy. It's like taking the hump out of a camel: He might never be a camel anymore. But I believe he's using his emotion as a fuel, to make him try harder."
Batista says he is also stressing the need for Hernandez to be more economical with his pitches, to not try to strike everyone out so he can go deeper into games.
"He's learning that and hopefully he's going to get it," Batista says. "It's a little hard for me to tell him some stuff because of my situation but I tell him that I learned how to pitch by talking to some of the greatest pitchers I could. I talked to Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. I had the opportunity to play with Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, and one of the best things I was taught is there is no excuse for lack of preparation. I tell [Hernandez] all the time, you need a game plan and after that you need to know how to execute your game plan. That's the only difference between you and every other human being who has ever gone out there.
"It's not about ability. A lot of guys have more ability. I tell him, you think you're the only one who was in the big leagues at 21? Look at Dwight Gooden. The youngest pitcher to ever win the Cy Young, at age 19 [sic; Gooden was 20]. Unbelievable fastball, incredible curveball. So you're not the only one with the tools you have. But can you put some brains behind those tools?"
Batista says he is excited to watch Hernandez progress because he can be very special indeed.
Of course, Mariners fans have known that since they first heard about Hernandez in the minors. And now, almost six years after crowning him before he threw his first pitch in the majors, it might be time to order that round table for the reign of King Felix.
"I know they expected a lot but I just wanted to go out and do my job, that's all," Hernandez says. "That's the only thing I can control."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Dubbed "King Felix" while still in Class A, Felix Hernandez is finally ready to reign as one of baseball's top starters.