Felix Hernandez’s perfect game on Wednesday was a testament to both his excellent stuff, but also a well-deserved outcome for an excellent game plan executed by he and catcher John Jaso. A former Ray himself, Jaso appeared to know just how to approach the Rays lineup, getting increasingly good results as the game went along:
That’s 5 swinging strikes through the first 61 pitches, and then 19 through the remaining 53 pitches. How did Felix do this? He and Jaso took advantage of an aggressive Rays plan by placing filthy breaking stuff further and further from the zone.
Despite yesterday’s no-no, the Tampa Bay Rays still lead league in walk-rate, and they are a typically patient team — almost to a fault. But against Felix Hernandez, they started aggressive. In the first three innings, the Rays put 4 first-pitch strikes into play — 2 four-seams and 2 pitches labeled “cutters” that are really just fastballs with a lot of movement.
If we break this game into three portions, we can see Hernandez had an evolving approach to the Rays lineup. Tampa Bay came out with a swing early strategy. And since Hernandez started in the zone early, he missed fewer bats earlier:
The Rays put 4 first pitches into play through the first three innings, then tried to put another 2 first pitches into play during the middle three, but they resulted in 1 foul ball and 1 swing and miss. By the final three innings, the Rays hitters had given up on the first pitch because Felix had given up on throwing strikes.
We can understand why the Rays said “No thanks” to pitch No. 1 in those final three frames when we look at how Felix’s approach evolved.
In the first two innings, Felix kept pretty close to the zone. But he got such good results from his off-speed stuff in the second inning — shown as the lower-right blob in “The Mid Felix Perfecto” — that he pretty much started throwing only Bugs Bunny stuff by the final third of the game.
We can see this manifest in his pitch selection:
By the final three innings, Felix threw his changeup more than all three of his fastballs combined (four-seam, cut and sinking). With only a combined 12 fastballs over his final 44 pitches, he needed to throw in the zone either.
Looking at where he threw after the 61 pitch mark, we can see he and Jaso recognized the aggressive Rays approach — and the Rays’ struggles to identify the off-speed stuff — and then moved out of the zone:
When the heart of the plate empties of pitches like that, it means something has to change — either for the hitters or the pitcher. In this case, the Rays needed to adjust.
By the top of the seventh inning, Joe Maddon apparently divined the new approach by Felix. So the Rays began to take more pitches, but the zone had grown during their aggressiveness, resulting in no less than three borderline strikes going the King’s way. Maddon then picked the next borderline strike and promptly got himself ejected.
He also got what he wanted:
Homeplate umpire Rob Drake called a strike on Matt Joyce in the final PA of the 7th inning — four-seamer that was high and away. Honestly, it was closer than the three previous lefty strikes, but Maddon chose that one to air his grievances. Afterwards, Felix did not try for many more lefty strikes — but he did throw one more to that exact same location against Carlos Pena in the top of the 8th — and this time his “cutter” was called a ball. Unfortunately for Maddon, the 1 extra pitch did not give Pena enough purchase, as the at bat still slipped into yet another strikeout for the King.
Of the 24 whiffs Felix induced, only 2 came on fastballs — a four-seamer and a sinker on pitches 104 and 107. Jaso and Felix found the breaking stuff was working, and so they made it work for them:
Congrats to Felix Hernandez for throwing a perfect game and getting filthy — and witty — while doing so.
Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.