Once Randy Johnson established himself as the premier pitcher in Seattle Mariners history it seemed as though he would never be unseated. And while "the Big Unit" may still be holding onto the throne, he's sitting less comfortably in the face of an aggressive challenge from "King" Felix Hernandez.
Who is Seattle's all-time ace?
This isn't necessarily anything that can be settled with numbers, but we start where all analysis starts these days-- WAR.
Strictly from a cumulative WAR standpoint, these two are just about on equal footing. Johnson accumulated 36.7 rWAR during his Mariners career while Felix is up to 31.5. If Felix does what is expected of him in 2013 his games, innings pitched and WAR should be virtually the same as Johnson's.
The sum doesn't tell the whole story, of course, as Johnson peaked higher. In 1995 Johnson tallied an 8.3 rWAR season before notching a 7.7 mark in 1997. Felix's best season thus far came in 2010 when he reached 6.8. There were times that Johnson was simply more dominant than Felix could ever hope to be.
The two shared a similar Major League timeline in terms of reaching their ace potential. Felix took a little more than three and a half seasons to overcome command and pitch sequencing issues before breaking out in 2009 and becoming the Cy Young runner up to Zack Greinke. Randy Johnson took about four seasons to find the strikezone and figure out his slider before emerging in 1993 as the Cy Young runner up to Jack McDowell. But part of Johnson's legend is built on the "project" aspect of his story. He came over from Montreal as a flamethrower who didn't know how to throw a strike before emerging as a world beater. While Felix certainly had his ups and downs upon breaking into the league, Johnson's lows were lower. His first few seasons saw rWARs in the 0.0 to 2.0 range while Felix sat between 1.1 and 3.7.
And the Major League timelines only mean so much without the greater context. Felix blazed through the minor leagues as one of the game's top prospects, reaching the Majors and never looking back after just 58 games. Johnson played college ball at USC and still needed 82 minor league appearances before sticking in the bigs. More simply put: Felix is currently 26 years old; Johnson's 1993 breakout came at age 29. Watching Felix grow into an ace was special, but we were merely watching him fulfill his destiny. Johnson's success story was better-suited for storytime.
As were many other circumstances surrounding Johnson's career in Seattle. He dominated in a hitters' era while pitching in a hitters' park. More than anything, he was an integral part of Seattle's most beloved team, providing crunch time heroics that continue to be recounted in excited tones. He pitched a complete game gem to sink the Angels in the one-game playoff. He then got the win against the Yankees in game three of the ALDS before famously coming out of the bullpen on short rest for innings 9-11 in game five to help push the Mariners to the ALCS. Not to mention the first no-hitter in Mariners history, or the 19 strikeout game, or all the other iconic images and displays of pure dominance.
But Johnson played on teams with three Hall of Fame-caliber players in Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez, and the above heroics are easily forgotten without "EVERYBODY SCORES" and "The Double." Felix hasn't had the same fortune. He is Hall of Fame-bound himself if he continues the way he's been going, but he hasn't had the the supporting staff. 2010 -- his Cy Young season -- was the closest he came when he was backed up by Ichiro (in his last good season) and Cliff Lee. But few others showed up to play.
As such, the opportunities for heroics and legend-building haven't been there. Even so, he's done his damnedest. He's thrown shut out after shut out in an attempt to drive a team with no offense to victory. He threw the first perfect game in Mariners history, among other memorable performances. He hit a grand slam off of Johan Santana. He has his own iconic image that will forever live on.
But it's not fall baseball. For the most part, Felix's tense moments were self-contained. There were no bigger consequences.
Johnson wasn't the best pitcher in baseball during his time with the Mariners. At times, definitely, but Greg Maddux held down the distinction during that period not unlike Felix versus Roy Halliday and others. But while we don't know what the future holds for Felix, Johnson would go on to the very best.
Just not with the Mariners.
Upon leaving Seattle he put up one of the most dominating half-seasons you'll ever see with the Houston Astros immediately before rattling off four consecutive Cy Young-winning seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks. At that point he couldn't be touched. He had gone from "one of the very best pitchers in baseball" to "one of the very best pitchers in the history of baseball."
Johnson was great with the Mariners but he was otherworldy with the Astros and Diamondbacks. But we remember those performances -- his World Series run, his perfect game, his 20 strikeout game, his triple crown, his ... exploding pigeon -- and unknowingly but undoubtedly project that onto his Mariners career. Johnson will go into the Hall of Fame as a Diamondback. His Mariners legacy is elevated by what he did in other colors.
Which is unfortunate given the way things ended in Seattle. Johnson was unhappy with Mariners management and reportedly clashed with teammates and media members. Many believe the deteriorating conditions contributed to his uninspired performance in the first half of 1998. But immediately upon exiting Seattle the clouds were lifted and a flip switched.
Contrast that with Felix, who takes every possible opportunity to express his love for Seattle, the organization, and the fans, along with his desire to retire a Mariner. Whether it's genuine or not, it seems genuine. Like Johnson, Felix gets fired up on the field. Unlike Johnson, Felix seems entirely approachable off of it. There is plenty of time for Felix's image to take a turn for the worst, but right now it's nearly impossible to imagine it happening.
(To be fair, Felix got paid by the Mariners where Johnson wanted to get paid by the Mariners but was denied.)
But that's not quite enough for me. Not yet. For now, Johnson is still Seattle's ace in my mind. Johnson's peak and role in Mariners lore is too much for Felix's current body of work to overcome. I'm probably a bigger fan of Felix's than I ever was Johnson's, but nostalgia's got the best of me.
Felix is on the inside track, however. Health permitting, he could take the crown just in terms of longevity. If he re-signs with the Mariners and continues to anchor the rotation for another 5 years or more it would be hard to imagine any other hurler being held in higher regard. And for all we know, maybe he hasn't peaked. Maybe he has an 8+ WAR season or two in him. After all the concern with his fastball speed last spring I think we all learned not to doubt him.
Winning would make it official. The visual of Felix leading a new generation of Mariners (and their fans) into the playoffs -- getting doggy-piled on the field by his teammates and wildly dousing the Safeco Field locker room with champagne -- would be tough to beat as the 1990s (sadly) shrink into the rear view.
Whether Felix ever supplants Johnson as the pitcher most associated with the Mariners doesn't really matter, of course. We were just lucky to see them in Mariners colors. But it's fun to think about. The Big Unit or the King? It's a debate that could be even more fun in another year or two. We'll see what happens.
Who ya got?