Felix Hernandez’s Ominous Company

Let’s talk about the King. Felix Hernandez lost his start on opening day. In one sense, it was just the same old Mariners — Felix allowed one earned run, and literally just one hit, a fly-ball blooper into the shallow outfield. So, that makes it sound crazy, but Felix also walked five batters in six innings, and put a sixth on base by hitting him. Fewer than 60% of his pitches were strikes, which would be a bad mark for anyone, and Felix acknowledged he wasn’t working like himself. The plus side, naturally, is that he still wasn’t hittable. But he was kind of wild, and — and — his velocity was down.

It was down a full couple ticks. This follows a string of appearances in spring when Felix was below his previous velocity. That wasn’t a big deal then, but it’s a bigger deal now, with the season underway. According to PITCHf/x, Felix threw just two pitches at at least 91 miles per hour. Last year’s average fastball was 91.8. Every so often, there can be these blips — in one April start in 2013, Felix threw just one pitch north of 91 — yet this could be a developing pattern. And it’s worth taking a step back to consider just how far Felix’s velocity has fallen.

Let’s just pretend this is Felix’s new level. Let’s pretend his new average fastball is a hair above 89. I know that that’s a risky assumption, but I’m making it for the purposes of the following table. I looked at the starters who have already worked in 2016, and for those who haven’t pitched yet, then I pulled numbers from 2015. Then I found every starter’s peak career velocity, for a season in which they threw at least 50 innings (as a starter). I then calculated the difference between the recent fastball and the peak fastball. Here’s the bottom 10:

10 Biggest Fastball Drops From Peak
Name Recent Fastball Peak Fastball Difference
Tim Lincecum 87.2 94.2 -7.0
Jered Weaver 83.3 90.2 -6.9
Felix Hernandez 89.4 95.8 -6.4
Matt Harrison 86.5 92.8 -6.3
Dan Haren 86.1 91.9 -5.8
Justin Masterson 87.1 92.7 -5.6
Ubaldo Jimenez 90.6 96.1 -5.5
David Price 90.8 95.5 -4.7
Roberto Hernandez 88.8 93.5 -4.7
A.J. Burnett 90.9 95.6 -4.7

Eight of those are from 2015, and two of those are from 2016. The two very recent ones are Felix and Price, but there’s a potentially critical difference here — for Price’s start, the temperature was 34 degrees. For Felix, in Texas, it was 83 and sunny. Conditions were bad for the former and just about perfect for the latter, so while you can excuse Price’s velocity under-performance, Felix’s is more notable. At this level, he’s lost almost as much off his heater as Jered Weaver, whose fastball has disintegrated into nothing.

It’s not a very promising table, Price aside. Lincecum had a major hip operation, and he somehow still hasn’t held his big awesome showcase. Harrison has more or less been through physical hell, and Weaver’s been diagnosed with something degenerative. Haren retired, and Masterson wasn’t healthy, and so on and so forth. There are injury problems in here. There’s ineffectiveness in here.

Now, there is good news. It’s not like this is to be taken as a declaration that Felix is finished. He claims that he’s healthy. The Rangers just had a world of trouble squaring him up. It’s not new news that Felix’s fastball has declined from his peak, and it’s actually been cited as a positive, with Felix having matured and learned how to pitch. Felix has been fantastic throwing 92. He’s been one of the best pitchers on the planet throwing at that level. Felix didn’t really become the King until after he came off of his velocity peak. That’s when he mastered his changeup, and that opened for him a new level of dominance. It stands to reason that his movement is more important than his speed.

It’s just — for one thing, you notice when a pitcher is down a few miles. It’s of particular significance when you’re talking about an ace, who also had an under-powered spring. Felix wasn’t very effective down the stretch a year ago, and the Mariners need for him to bounce back. It looks like Felix’s arm slot has dropped. And I might as well acknowledge what Andy Van Slyke said, when he claimed that Felix has been pitching through a partially torn UCL. Every pitcher has some amount of wear and tear, and Van Slyke has been largely discredited for other remarks, but there’s no ignoring that Felix’s long-term contract with the Mariners includes the John Lackey busted-elbow clause. That’s not normal, and given that actions speak louder than words, it’s evidence the Mariners think something could be up. I’m not trying to be an alarmist. I’m just trying to put the pieces together as best I can.

The pieces we have: Felix wasn’t real good down the stretch. His velocity was down some in spring, and that continued into the regular season. There’s some amount of evidence the Mariners are aware of something going on in his elbow. Wear and tear is normal. Felix has had some abnormal struggles with command. Still, he pitched well with reduced velocity before, and even Monday, the Rangers couldn’t hit Felix hard. Their one successful hit was a bloop. Just as there’s reason to believe there could be something wrong, there’s also reason to believe Felix could thrive around 89 – 90, provided he just throws a few more strikes. And everyone’s permitted the occasional wilder outing. Pitching is hard, and no one is yet in a groove.

I’ve spent hours thinking about this, trying to arrange the pieces into one easy-to-follow path. I don’t think it’s possible. How can you be simultaneously reassured and concerned? If Felix comes out the next time throwing strikes at 92, that’ll take care of that, for the time being. But that hasn’t yet happened. How you feel is how you feel, but as Felix Hernandez goes at the moment: It’s complicated.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Well, let’s not forget that a lot of arm injuries actually present without pain, so while Felix may feel healthy, he could still have an underlying problem that causes the velo drop.

Or, much more boringly, it’s probably just one of those things that happen.