Felix Hernandez looks like a new man. He’s created a new self because he wants to more closely resemble his old self, the self that ranked consistently among the best pitchers in baseball. There are many different ways to tell the story of his decline, but I could note that he was most recently a one-win pitcher, where he used to be a six-win pitcher. The season before last, he was a three-win pitcher. That’s one way to put it all simply. Here’s another:
You don’t have to know anything about baseball to spot those directional changes, and you don’t have to know much about baseball to know those directional changes are bad. This is an easy thing to discuss: Over the past couple years, Felix has lost his command, and he’s become more hittable. Now that he’s almost 31 years old, we could say, well, yeah, this is how players decline, and his age is pretty decline-y. Felix, though, has worked to reverse all this. As with Noah Syndergaard, you could say Felix is presently in the best shape of his life. The whole point is to be hopeful.
Whenever a player says he’s in his best shape, what he’s suggesting is that better days are ahead. And it feels like it’s intuitive — of course you’d expect players to perform better if they’ve gotten more fit. In reality, no one’s ever found much of anything showing a link between better spring shape and subsequent performance, but every case is different. As Russell Carleton once wrote, for every player, N = 1. Each case should be evaluated on its own merits.
Here’s what we can say against Felix: He is in his 30s now, and pitchers in their 30s tend to be worse than they were in their 20s. If we were talking about a whole group of players, we wouldn’t be looking for a performance bounce-back. This hinges on Felix’s individuality, and he’s been losing stuff for as long as PITCHf/x has been tracking it.
There’s also the related matter of his mechanics. Felix’s delivery isn’t as consistent as it was, and while video breakdowns are always challenging, perhaps we can see something in the release-point information. The last two years, Felix’s changeup has separated from his fastballs, and that might well be a symptom of something being wrong.
One can’t ignore that Felix, over his big-league career, has eclipsed 2,400 innings. Like any veteran pitcher, his body’s got some wear and tear, and when the Mariners signed him to an extension in 2013, they included a clause that would partially protect the organization in the event of Felix needing major elbow surgery. That clause isn’t unique, but it also isn’t common, and it suggests there could be an issue in there. You can’t predict when things could fall apart.
So Felix has gotten older, and he’s gradually lost his velocity and his mechanics. As arguments go, that would be fairly convincing. The default assumption is generally that older players don’t improve. Now here’s where it gets particular. When last season ended, the Mariners publicly challenged Felix to work harder, both during the year and before it. They wanted him to be better prepared, physically and mentally. When Felix was younger, everything came so naturally, so his lack of preparation was almost thought of as a plus. It was a sign of his brilliance that he didn’t need to study or throw between-start bullpens. You could say it’s all caught up to him. So Felix spent the winter adding bulk.
The focus was mostly on his lower body. Felix sustained a calf injury last season, and the plan was also to stabilize his ankle. In Felix’s own words, his weight is up to 224, as opposed to last year’s 207. Now, a paragraph from his trainer:
“I look for flaws in a person’s kinetic chain,” he said. “Let’s say if you stand on one leg and you are unstable from the ankle, the body instantly will start shutting off power in increments as it communicates to the arm. The goal was to remove the instability from his ankle. We are trying to get his velocity back to 93-94, that’s the goal. So allowing us to remove the flaws from his kinetic chain will do that. He had that calf issue and that did not help his power either.”
It sounds persuasive enough, although of course it does. I don’t know enough to know if it’s nonsense, but obviously a stronger lower body would help a pitcher generate more force. It could help a pitcher keep his delivery tighter and more consistent. The specifically-cited goal in there is to boost Felix’s fastball, which slipped last year to 90.5 miles per hour. The last time it was as high as 93 was 2011, although as recently as 2014 it was 92.4. I perused the last decade of pitcher-seasons, looking at starters who threw at least 100 innings in consecutive years. There are 18 examples of pitchers adding at least one mile per hour in their 30s. Brandon McCarthy is the only pitcher who added at least two.
It seems unlikely that Felix could add two and a half or three ticks. It doesn’t seem unlikely that he could add something, and in 2013, when his fastball averaged 91.9, he earned a few Cy Young votes. Felix has succeeded before in the lower 90s. He just needs that better stability. It’s impossible for us to know if he’ll find it, but it’s not impossible to think that he could.
One could choose to be greatly encouraged by the career track of Justin Verlander.
Verlander is living evidence that apparent declines can be reversible, even in the 30s. His circumstances were different — every pitcher’s circumstances are different — but 2014 Verlander posted his lowest strikeout rate since he was a rookie. In 2016, Verlander’s strikeout rate reached a new career high. His average fastball has rebounded by more than a tick, and a lot of people think Verlander was just the American League’s best starting pitcher. He’s back, is the point, and if one career can look like that, why couldn’t another?
And so we’re left to wonder, for at least another month and a half. History tells us that Felix Hernandez is probably finished as a top-of-the-rotation starter. There are simply too many trends working against him. The details of this individual case, however, are more promising, given that Felix hadn’t had to work this hard before. The most recent version of him as a pitcher wasn’t unrecognizable; there’s still a quality starter in there somewhere. If you’re looking for reasons to care about spring training, monitor Felix, when we get any data. Look for velocity readings in camp, and look for velocity readings in the WBC. They won’t share just what Felix has turned into, but they’ll be something to measure your hopefulness against.
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.