Felix Hernandez‘s quest to take the Seattle Mariners‘ strikeout record from Randy Johnson is over.

Now all King Felix has to do is get as close as he can to the Big Unit on Major League Baseball’s all-time strikeout list. Considering Johnson is one of only four pitchers to record 4,000 strikeouts, this is otherwise known as the hard part.

But that can wait. Though the milestone came in a 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on Saturday night, Hernandez’s focus should now be on celebrating his latest accomplishment. With his first-inning strikeout of Rafael Ortega, Hernandez became Seattle’s franchise leader with 2,163 strikeouts.

Behold the moving pictures!

Hernandez finished with four strikeouts in seven innings, bumping his career total to 2,166. Beyond being the most in Mariners history, that’s also an awful lot by the standards of active pitchers. Only CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon are ahead of Hernandez on that list.

And that’s not even the most impressive part of the strikeout collection Hernandez is working on.

Because it feels like the right-hander has been with the Mariners since the time of the Taft administration, it’s easy to forget King Felix only recently turned 30 years old. Through the age of 30, only seven pitchers racked up more strikeouts than he has:

Fernandez has some pretty good company in this court. And since he’s only now beginning his age-30 season, the list of pitchers ahead of him should dwindle as 2016 progresses. If he follows his career rate of 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings to his usual 200 or so strikeouts, he’ll pass Pedro Martinez and Don Drysdale for sure, and he could make a run at Bert Blyleven.

From where he stands, Hernandez looks like a lock for 3,000 strikeouts—a club that boasts only 16 members. If all goes really well, he might even have a shot at joining Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Steve Carlton in the 4,000-strikeout club.

The latter is an ultra-optimistic projection. But for anyone out there who feels like taking the side of the ultra-optimist, there are a few things to hang your hat on.

Because it’s pretty hard to strike guys out from the bench, the first thing Hernandez needs to make it to the peak of baseball’s strikeout mountain is one thing that’s rarely been in question in his career: durability. Hernandez is the only active pitcher who’s made at least 30 starts and logged at least 190 innings every year since 2006.

Hernandez also has a signature strikeout pitch in his changeup. Houston Astros right-hander Lance McCullers told Ted Berg of USA Today that it’s on the “Mount Rushmore of changeups.” And these days, it’s up to its usual tricks. According to Brooks Baseball, the whiff rate on Hernandez’s changeup was back over 20 percent entering Saturday after it had dipped below that mark in 2015.

Another advantage Hernandez has is that modern baseball is all about the strikeout. Baseball’s strikeout rate has been going nowhere but up for years, and by now we know this is no coincidence.

In 2014, Jon Roegele of the Hardball Times wrote about how huge the strike zone had become. In 2012, Jayson Stark of ESPN wrote about baseball’s increasing obsession with data and how it was helping pitchers more than hitters. Stark also wrote that it probably didn’t hurt that baseball wasn’t as juiced as it once was. Add up these things, and more strikeouts would happen.

So though there’s a huge gap between Hernandez and the tippy-top of baseball’s all-time strikeout list, his credentials and the landscape in which he exists make it look smaller than it is. Another 10 seasons with 200 or so strikeouts to take him over 4,000 sounds almost reasonable.

But let’s talk about that “almost.”

Though King Felix’s track record of durability is commendable in an era when the injury bug has quite the appetite for pitching arms, he’s at an age where his history of durability shouldn’t be taken as a predictor of the future.

Only seven pitchers since 1969 (the year the mound was lowered) logged more innings through age 30 than Hernandez has. And among the players Hernandez is due to pass in 2016 is Sabathia, who’s as good a cautionary tale as anyone. He made it to 200 innings in his age-31 and age-32 seasons, but then his body rebelled and turned him into a shell of his former self.

Lest anyone think the same can’t happen to Hernandez, let’s not forget his elbow sent up some red flags just last season. If that becomes a bigger issue, he’ll be lucky to pitch another five years, much less 10.

It’s also fair to wonder just how much longer Hernandez can be a strikeout pitcher. He may have his good changeup this year, but his velocity is continuing a distressing trend:

That’s a noticeable leak, and the odds of Hernandez reversing it are slim. As Mike Podhorzer of FanGraphs wrote, Hernandez’s velocity may end up “well below expectations given what we would expect him to lose this season.”

This isn’t going to be a one-year thing. Less velocity in 2016 will lead to less velocity in 2017 and less velocity in 2018. That’s how the aging curve works, and it’s among the chief reasons why, as Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman of FanGraphs noted, starting pitchers’ strikeout rates take a marked downturn as they age. In other words: the 8.5 career K/9 rate that’s gotten Hernandez to where he is now isn’t going to stick around for the long haul.

As such, the pie-in-the-sky hope of 4,000 strikeouts will likely remain just that. Even if we assume that Hernandez will stay on the mound for another five to 10 years, the bar probably shouldn’t be set any higher than even 3,000 strikeouts.

But to one extent, that’s also as high as it needs to go. Of the 16 members in the 3,000-strikeout club, only Clemens and Curt Schilling aren’t in the Hall of Fame. If King Felix joins such company one day, he might as well punch his ticket to Cooperstown on the spot.

For now, though, Hernandez can say he broke one of Johnson’s records. There aren’t many who have done the same.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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