We are pleased to welcome David Laurila to the FanGraphs staff. He’s an accomplished journalist who was accepted into the Baseball Writer’s Association of America in December, and has become one of the premier interviewers of those in and around the game. We’re excited to bring his series of excellent Q&As to FanGraphs, and the series kicks of today with a certain reigning Cy Young award winner.
Few, if any, hurlers combine overpowering stuff and pitching acumen quite like Felix Hernandez. The Mariners workhorse has dominated the American League each of the past two-plus seasons, going 19-5 in 2009 and capturing the Cy Young Award last year despite logging just 13 wins. He’s done so with an array of offerings, all of which induce weak contact and swings and misses on a consistent basis. The 25-year-old right-hander led the league in numerous categories in 2010, including ERA, innings pitched, and hits per nine innings. He topped all American League pitchers in WAR and finished second in strikeouts. In eight starts this season he is 4-2, 3.02, including a pair of complete games.
David Laurila: How would you define yourself as a pitcher?
Felix Hernandez: I’m a smart pitcher. I’m a hard thrower who knows what he has to do. I know myself and go by my strengths and not by the guys who are hitting. I know what I have to do. That’s me.
DL: Do you use video or scouting reports?
FH: I’m thinking on every pitch that I need to throw — every pitch has to have a purpose — but I don’t like to watch any video or look at scouting reports. I know the other guys in the league. I know what they can hit and what they can’t. If they can’t hit a fastball, I have to throw a fastball. But if he’s killing the fastball, can I not throw a fastball? No. It’s my best pitch, so I have to throw it. That’s why I don’t like to watch video or scouting reports.
DL: Is pitching simple or is it complicated?
FH: It’s complicated. Everything in this game is complicated. First, you need to have talent to be here, and you also need to have heart. Professional hitters are pretty good. That part is hard. You have to throw strikes. That part is simple. It makes it less complicated if you consistently throw strikes.
DL: How important is velocity to your game?
FH: Not so much. My first year I was throwing 97-98 [mph] and now I’m from 92 to 96, but I can locate all of my pitches. That’s what I need to do. I don’t need to throw hard and blow people away to get them out. I just need to throw on the corners. If you try to throw every pitch hard, you’re probably just going to throw five or six innings. If you know the purpose of the pitch — let me throw this pitch to get a double play — then your pitch count isn’t going to be way up.
DL: Are strikeouts important?
FH: I don’t try to strike out people, but sometimes they swing and miss.
DL: How has your repertoire evolved over the years?
FH: I’ve got five pitches. My first year in the big leagues I just had a fastball and a curveball. Then, in my second year, I started throwing a slider. I [added] more changeups and a sinker and now my sinker is my best pitch. I just need to locate it, and if I do, it‘s my best pitch. When I need to get a double play or a ground ball I throw my sinker.
DL: What role do pitching coaches play for you?
FH: They’re important. Other pitching coaches…I’ve had like five pitching coaches in my years here. They’re always important. Sometimes they give you one tip and it clicks, just like that. [Carl Willis] mostly comes out and just says stuff like “don’t open up too quick,” or “do this,” and he’s right.
DL: Can you talk about your preparation?
FH: My routine…I long toss every day. On the day after I pitch, I work out in the weight room and run a little bit. I do my lifting weights. The second day I do my legs. The next days I don’t do anything. I just come in here [to the clubhouse] and watch TV.
DL: According to Carl Willis, your long-toss program is unique.
FH: Maybe it is. I don’t know what the other guys do. I do my own work, and I do what I do to make my arm feel strong. When I turned professional, that’s when I started throwing long toss and I feel my arm getting stronger and stronger. That’s why I keep doing it.
DL: Could you throw more pitches, and innings, than you do?
FH: I don’t know, man. They’re just trying to protect us. They’re trying to make sure that we can pitch for a long time. But my arm feels strong. I like to pitch and I like to throw the baseball.
DL: You won the Cy Young Award last year with just 13 wins. Was the fact that voters looked beyond the most traditional pitching statistics — wins and losses — an important lesson for casual baseball fans?
FH: It was very important. The award is for the best pitcher, not the one that had the most wins. I think I pitched well, and it’s important that I was recognized for doing that.
Carl Willis on what makes Hernandez as good as he is: “He has a tremendous fastball, but what makes him so unique, and what makes him an elite pitcher, is that his other pitches are so well-above average. With the control and command that he has with those pitches, he’s really never in a count, or a situation, that he feels he has to throw a fastball. From a hitter’s perspective, it’s so difficult to sit on, or look for, one pitch, because he can throw any pitch with supreme confidence at any time. You’ll see curveballs on 3-1 or even 3-0 counts, regardless of where runners are on the bases. His ability to do that, along with obviously having great stuff, is what really separates him.”
On the rare occasions when Hernandez is struggling: “When Felix is not throwing well, usually the issue is his front shoulder. He has a bit of a rotation with his hips, in his delivery, and at times that kind of works itself up from the hip into the front shoulder, and he opens up too soon and gets off the plate. He just loses his release point a little bit. It’s never anything horrible, but at same time it gets him off the plate.”
On Hernandez‘s long-toss program: “He’s special in that he plays long toss every day, and it’s not even the normal long toss. It’s almost an extreme long toss. He probably throws the baseball about 280 to 300 feet. For the most part you see guys go out — the longer guys — 200 feet, maybe 225 feet. In his case, he throws the ball with a lot of height — he really gets a lot of air under it — and what he’s accomplishing is not only strength, but also extension. It’s a bit far, but hey, you can’t argue with the success he’s had.
“Jason Phillips, our bullpen catcher, plays catch with him. This is something he does the day after he pitches, the day of his bullpen, the day before he pitches. A program like his certainly isn’t for everybody, but as long as he keeps pitching like he does, it’s not something you want to change.”
On mentoring Michael Pineda: “I think we sometimes get so caught up on people’s performances on the field that we lose sight of them as a person, and I think Felix is a tremendous young man. He’s a great teammate. He’s taken Michael Pineda under his wing, really trying to help educate him about Major League Baseball — the game, the life. He’s a special individual, both on and off the mound.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.