Since his first full season in 2006, Felix Hernandez has been one of baseball's best pitchers. He's accumulated 34.5 fWAR, which puts him behind only Justin Verlander, C.C. Sabathia, and Roy Halladay. You can also find Hernandez's name near the top of the list in most every other meaningful statistical category, where he pops up alongside those three greats and others such as Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum, Dan Haren, Zack Greinke, and so on.
But there is a difference between Hernandez and those other aces: Hernandez has been left to waste his dominance as a member of a series of truly miserable Mariners teams. Toronto sent Halladay to join the world-beating Phillies; Haren escaped the Arizona desert to team up with Jered Weaver in Los Angeles; Sabathia left Cleveland before it was the cool thing to do; and Cliff Lee, well, he seems to jump between title contenders each year. All of those pitchers got their chance to pitch big games, and all of them made their bones as big-game pitchers because of it. (Those reputations have a way of outstripping reality.)
Then there's Hernandez, who has turned in great season after great season as the ace of the Mariners' pitching staff but has never even sniffed the drama of a truly meaningful start, one to define a season or cement a legacy. This is a bad situation for any young, talented pitcher, but it's especially disappointing in Hernandez's case, because the man who has never been given a real opportunity to rise to the occasion seems to know how to do just that.
Inspired by Rob Neyer, I used Baseball Reference's game score metric (Neyer used a modified game score that weighted the firepower of opposing offenses), to find the five best starts of Hernandez's career:
1. July 14, 2012 against the Texas Rangers: 9 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 13 K
2. June 30, 2010 at the New York Yankees: 9 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 11 K
3. June 28, 2012 against the Boston Red Sox: 9 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 13 K
4. April 11, 2007 at the Boston Red Sox: 9 IP, 1 H, 2 BB, 0 ER, 6 K
5. August 4, 2012 at the New York Yankees: 9 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 6 K
That's five games against five historically high-powered offenses, and that's five games in which Hernandez absolutely ate those offenses alive.
Hernandez has made a habit out of pitching his best against baseball's best teams. Of his seven career shutouts, five have come against teams with winning records, and four of those five have come against the Red Sox and the Yankees.
The only start from the above list that I have a personal memory of is the 2007 game against the Red Sox. It was only Hernandez's second start of the season, a time when most pitchers are waiting for the cold weather to break before taking their best stuff out of drydock. Hernandez carved up the Red Sox for seven innings, carrying a no-hitter into the eighth. Leading off that inning, J.D. Drew slapped a line drive back up the middle to give Boston its first hit of the game. What I remember most from that game is Hernandez's reaction to losing the no-hitter. The average pitcher handles that moment with a kind of wincing equanimity; he's sad he missed out on a historic opportunity, but he also understands that shit happens in baseball and that he was chasing the far end of the probability curve, anyway.
Not Hernandez, though. Drew's single skipped right under his outstretched bare hand, and when he turned toward the outfield to watch his no-hitter evaporate, he let out a angry roar, cursing himself as he stared at the dirt beneath his feet. Hernandez was pissed. His team wasn't going anywhere that year. That game, broadcast nationally on ESPN, was perhaps the most meaningful game he would pitch in all year. He wanted that fucking no-hitter.
By conventional standards, Hernandez has never pitched in a Big Game. No one calls him clutch because his teams have been too wretched to give him even a chance at being clutch. But clutch isn't always about rising to the occasion. Clutch can be about creating the occasion in the first place, out of nothing.