Hernandez turns heads in Seattle camp

Hernandez turning heads in Mariners camp

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It's become a familiar refrain for manager Mike Hargrove this time of year: He simply refuses to put much stock in anything that anyone does in the first week of Spring Training.

But after watching 20-year-old Felix Hernandez buzz through -- and that might well be putting it lightly -- an ordinary bullpen session on Saturday, Hargrove couldn't help but walk away feeling just a little impressed.

"He threw the heck out of the ball," Hargrove said. "There was a noticeable difference in how he threw and how everyone else threw. The ball just came out of his hand easier. ... When you have someone special like that -- even to the untrained eye -- it looks different."

Everything, it seems, is different about Hernandez this spring. He's 20 pounds lighter than he was a year ago, and his focus appears to be sharper.

He looks more like a veteran in the way he handles himself than the precocious 19-year-old who reported to camp in 2006.

"He looked like a 19-year-old kid; he looked soft," Hargrove said. "He's not that this year. He's come to camp more firm with his physical makeup. He seems to be more focused. ... He's got a lot of good things in front of him, and I think he recognizes that."

This is why the Mariners say they won't handle Hernandez -- who turns 21 on April 8 -- with the kid gloves they used during his first full Major League season.

Last season, the Mariners wanted to keep Hernandez to around 200 innings -- spring and regular season combined. They came close. Hernandez pitched 205 innings, with 191 of them coming during his 31 regular-season starts.

"My arm felt good. ... They wanted me to keep my innings low. If they want to keep my innings [down], I don't care," Hernandez said. "I want to go deep into the games, do the best I can and help the team win games."

Now, the Mariners say that they are prepared to let Hernandez go. Well, within reason.

"In my conversations with [general manager Bill Bavasi], we're not going to go on a set amount of innings pitched," Hargrove said. "It will be more innings plus pitches thrown, with probably put more emphasis on pitches thrown per outing and the types of pitches."

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The Mariners want to see Hernandez -- and, really, the rest of the staff -- be much more economical with pitches.

"We're trying to make something happen with those first four pitches," Hargrove said.

Hargrove and his pitching coach, Rafael Chaves, harped on Hernandez about getting the ball in play early in the count all season.

The message finally sunk in during the second half.

While Hernandez often labored in the first half of the season, routinely working into high pitch counts, Seattle saw more efficiency from Hernandez down the stretch.

On Aug. 28, Hernandez tossed a five-hit shutout against the Angels. If that wasn't impressive enough, consider that he needed just 95 pitches to do it. Sure, he had five strikeouts, but the number that impressed Hargrove might have been 17 -- the number of groundouts Hernandez coaxed the Angels into.

"He threw strikes, kept the ball down and pitched to contact," Hargrove said. "With a lot of young kids with his sort of physical talent, they want to try and strike everyone out. If you do that, you're going to throw a lot of pitches every outing. That's not good for anybody."

But pitch efficiency was just one lesson that Hernandez learned during the 2006 season.

"A lot of things," Hernandez said. "Just throw strikes, ahead in the count, mix all your pitches, change speeds and work hard. I feel better. I lost a lot of pounds. I felt better, more confident, more comfortable."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.