The Mariners’ Five Greatest Pitchers
Felix Hernandez (2005-19)
The hefty (6’3”, 225 lbs.) right-hander became an instant ace for the Mariners upon his debut at 19 midway through the 2005 season, becoming the first teenager to win a major league game in over two decades, not allowing an extra-base hit through his first 30.2 innings, and taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning in a late-season game at Toronto. It didn’t take long for Mariners fans to anoint him as King Felix.
Highly sought in the majors in his native Venezuela, Hernandez signed with the Mariners at age 16, rejecting higher bids from other clubs (including the New York Yankees) because his idol was then-current Mariners pitcher and fellow Venezuelan Freddy Garcia. After his impressive rookie debut, Hernandez slumbered in 2006 to a 12-14 record and subpar 4.52 ERA, suggesting that some additional growing up was needed; gradually that occurred, as his numbers continued to improve with each passing year. By 2009, he was a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate with a league-high 19 wins (against just five losses) and a sharp 2.49 ERA. A year later, he won the award with a stellar 2.27 mark despite an average 13-12 record—a reflection of the awful support he received from an inept Mariners offense. It was also a fact realized by voters who, in an earlier time when analytics weren’t highly embraced to determine a player’s genuine contribution, would not have given him the honor.
In 2014, Hernandez copped his second ERA title with a career-best 2.14 mark, thanks in part to the help of a scoring review that converted four earned runs he allowed in his next-to-last start into unearned tallies to give him a slim edge over the White Sox’ Chris Sale. (He barely lost out on receiving his second Cy, as Cleveland’s Corey Kluber managed a few more votes.)
The Mariners latched onto Hernandez’s popularity by naming Section 150 at Safeco Field King Felix’s Court; spectators there were given yellow T-shirts, foam crowns and yellow “K” cards to hoist when Hernandez pitched. The Court was rewarded on August 15, 2012 when Hernandez threw the Mariners’ first-ever perfect game, retiring all 27 Tampa Bay batters he faced.
Hernandez provided a more unexpected highlight with the bat during a 2008 interleague contest against the Mets at New York when, in his only official at-bat of the year, he hit a grand slam. It was the first slam hit by an AL pitcher since 1971, and the first home run in general ever hit by a Mariners pitcher.
In 2016, Hernandez, became the Mariners’ all-time leader in wins and strikeouts; he held the top spot on the ERA list until his final season at Seattle, when years of wear and tear finally exhausted his greatness.
Randy Johnson (1989-98)
In 1989, the lowly Mariners brought in Ken Griffey Jr. to anchor their offense for years to come. It would also be the same year they would discover their ace for the next decade in the tall, intense southpaw from California nicknamed The Big Unit.
Brought to Seattle in a midseason trade that sent Mariners star pitcher Mark Langston to Montreal, Johnson came with a wicked fastball often timed up to 100 MPH and delivered with long arms in a wild, flailing pitching motion that would lead umpire Durwood Merrill to describe him as a “big hairy half-tarantula.” But as with the Expos, Johnson was wild, easily leading the American League in walks over each of his first three full years with the Mariners—issuing a career-high 152 in 1991—leaving him as nothing more than a sensational .500 pitcher with the occasional burst of greatness, such as his first of two career no-hitters in 1990 (walking six, naturally).
That changed once Johnson mastered a hard slider to go with his blazing fastball; opposing batters previously intimidated by his wildness now feared him in other ways as the walks decreased, the strikeouts increased, the earned run averages shrank and the wins began piling up. Starting in 1993, Johnson began a five-year stretch in which he was 75-20, led the AL thrice in strikeouts (including 308 K’s in 1993), won an ERA title with a 2.48 mark in 1995 (on a superlative 18-2 mark to win his first Cy Young Award) and captured his first 20-win effort in 1997, losing just four games with a 2.28 ERA that would be the lowest of his career. Johnson represented the Mariners in four All-Star Games, starting two—and was well remembered in 1993 for throwing a heater three feet over the head of Philadelphia’s John Kruk, who couldn’t help but smile and repeatedly tug at his shirt to pantomime a beating heart.
With a year left before free agency in 1998, Johnson expressed his displeasure when he heard the Mariners weren’t going to resign him; the lame duck status affected him, winning just nine of 19 decisions with a 4.33 ERA. Dealt away at the trading deadline to Houston, the Big Unit had a sensational short tenure with the Astros, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA before signing on with Arizona and winning four more Cys—and a World Series, in 2001—for the Diamondbacks, on his way to a lifetime 303-166 record and a place in Cooperstown.
Jamie Moyer (1996-2006)
After a 10-year struggle to find solid footing as he led a journeyman existence playing for five different teams, the left-handed Moyer came to Seattle, refined his pitching repertoire and found both stability and success for the next decade—producing a 145-87 mark for the Mariners that included his only two 20-win campaigns.
On the radar gun, Moyer was never to be confused with Johnson as he threw a fastball that rarely reached 90 MPH. But the left-hander developed a tremendous change-up considered one of the most effective ever, causing as much headaches for right-handed batters (who typically hit lefties better) as those who hit left. Debunking perception even further, Moyer pitched no worse for the Mariners in the Kingdome (embraced by hitters) than at pitching-friendly Safeco Field after the team’s 1999 relocation there.
Moyer won 20 games for the first time in 2001, at the age of 38—adding another three victories without a loss in the Mariners’ otherwise unsuccessful bid to secure their first AL flag following a 116-46 season. Two years later, Moyer reached 20 again—becoming the fifth pitcher, after Hall of Famers Cy Young, Pete Aleaxnder, Warren Spahn and Phil Niekro, to reach the milestone after turning 40. A year later in 2004, Moyer finally had his first losing season with the Mariners—allowing a major league-worst 44 home runs, a dubious apex in a career in which he would later set the all-time mark for most career blasts allowed at 522. In 2006, Moyer was traded in midseason to the Phillies, and his career lasted all the way to the age of 49 when he finally ran out of gas for the Colorado Rockies.
Freddy Garcia (1999-2004)
Felix Hernandez’s idol became Mariners property when he came Seattle’s way in the 1998 trade that sent Randy Johnson to the Astros; while Garcia wasn’t the Big Unit by any stretch of the imagination, his 17-8 rookie record for the Mariners in 1999 quelled a good deal of the pain Seattle fans felt in the wake of Johnson’s exodus.
Garcia’s subsequent years in Seattle would only fortify the fans’ satisfaction—especially in 2001, the year just about everything went right for the Mariners. Garcia won the AL ERA crown that season with a 3.05 mark and set career highs with 18 wins, a .750 winning percentage and 238.2 innings. He took credit for the Mariners’ two wins in their failed six-game ALCS loss to the Yankees. The wins continued to come in the following years, but his efficiency began to drag; with his contract up at the end of 2004, the Mariners dished him off to the Chicago White Sox—where a year later he became part of a stellar quartet of solid arms in a rotation that helped win Chicago’s first world title in 88 years.
Garcia was the winning pitcher in his first All-Star Game appearance in 2001; he might have made it two straight a year later, but commissioner Bud Selig didn’t give him the chance when the plug was pulled on a 7-7 tie with him left on the mound, as the game was called on account of empty bullpens.
Hisashi Iwakuma (2012-17)
After 11 mostly impressive seasons in Japan, Iwakuma arrived to Seattle and became, after Ichiro Suzuki, the second most popular Japanese-born Mariner in franchise history.
Iwakuma could have been Oakland’s in 2010, but he declined a four-year, $15 million deal with the A’s; after an injury-dotted 2011 campaign back in Japan reduced his value, he tried America again—and inked with the Mariners for much less. Seattle knew it was getting a lot of bang for its buck when Iwakuma, in his second season, finished third in the 2013 AL Cy Young Award vote with a 14-6 record and 2.66 ERA.
Although Iwakuma’s playing time has been somewhat inconsistent due to a series of nicks and nacks, his performance when healthy has produced steady results. He’s never suffered a losing record and stays in control by walking few batters—with only one allowed every five innings. In 2015, Iwakuma became the majors’ second Japanese-born pitcher, after Hideo Nomo, to toss a no-hitter, stifling the Baltimore Orioles at Safeco Field.
Iwakuma’s tenure in Seattle appeared over after 2015 when, as a free agent, he agreed o a three-year, $45 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. But the formality went awry when he flunked the physical. The Mariners quickly brought him back (again for less wages), and he responded with a career-high 16 wins.
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