We’ve Never Seen This Felix Hernandez

I recognize that this is a sensitive subject at a lousy time. I mean, the Mariners are winning, winning on a fairly sustained basis, and Felix Hernandez owns a lower ERA than Stephen Strasburg and Noah Syndergaard. According to our playoff odds page, the Mariners have a better than 50% chance of getting to the postseason, which for Felix would be his first-ever taste of those stakes. Mariners fans aren’t looking to be worried. Not now, not when they have circumstances to appreciate.

So I know this post might be interpreted as a bit of a bummer. It’s not meant that way; these are just observations. And no part of me presently thinks that Felix is toast. It’s just, there are things to talk about. What Felix has been doing, he’s never before done quite like this. It’s looking like he could be beginning a new chapter.

To start with, an old point that’s also a new point. I think we take velocity information for granted — it wasn’t that long ago this stuff wasn’t publicly available. It’s so easy to look up these days I don’t know if people appreciate the significance of movement. But, all right. In spring, Felix was throwing with unusually low velocity. Caught some attention, but you can shrug spring off, especially for the established players. Then the season started and Felix still had low velocity. Anything can happen once, right? Felix now has started six games. This should no longer be thought of as a blip. The image below is from Brooks Baseball, and it’s readily apparent that Felix’s pitch speed has dropped:

felix-velocity

It’s a pretty big drop, too. Depending on what you compare it to, it’s a drop of either a mile and a half, or two miles and a half. That typically isn’t something a pitcher just shakes off. You might notice that in, say, 2012, Felix built up arm strength as the season wore on, but even if he did that same thing now, he’d still finish lower than last year. Felix hasn’t been a true power pitcher for a while, but now he’s spending almost all of his time below 90. Yeah, he still has his movement. It’s not like he’s a completely different, unrecognizable pitcher. Velocity matters, though. It’s a meaningful indicator, and historically, pitchers who’ve lost this much velocity between seasons have seen their ERA- figures go up an average of 14 points.

Yet this isn’t just about Felix’s fastball. If everything else were the same, it would be easy to dismiss. Felix is sitting on 18 walks and 29 strikeouts. His lack of strikes, relatively speaking, is uncharacteristic, and you can see that below, in a six-game rolling plot of Felix’s strike rates over his career:

felix-strike-rates

The last time Felix dipped this low, he was a rookie, who didn’t yet really understand how to pitch. He hasn’t thrown so few strikes in over a decade, which for a pitcher is an eternity. We’ve never seen this kind of lower-velocity Felix, and we’ve just about never seen this kind of lower-control Felix. Both of those are worrisome signs. You can’t pretend they’re not, even if you try to. Felix usually dismisses any inquiries about his fastball, but he’s acknowledged he could be more precise.

On the other hand, there’s the matter of Felix’s low ERA. He was driven out of his start Wednesday, but he was knocked out by dinks and errors. This is where we find the saving grace. Felix hasn’t thrown strikes like usual, and he hasn’t missed bats like usual, but he owns one of baseball’s 10 lowest hard-hit rates. Via Statcast and Baseball Savant, Felix has yielded the sixth-lowest average batted-ball speed. By that measure he even comes out better than Jake Arrieta. There’s been too much contact, but there hasn’t been too much good contact. Fold that in with the walks, and you get the sense that Felix might be turning into a nibbler. Almost like Tom Glavine, for lack of a better example off the top of my head. Maybe Felix recognizes that he doesn’t have the same stuff, so he’s being increasingly careful. That’s just me speculating, but it fits a lot of the data points.

Where are the strikeouts? Are they just gone because of the reduced velocity? I think we could actually see something of a rebound, here. Felix whiffed 10 batters in his second start of the season. The ability is still in there. But here’s a list of Felix’s opponents:

  • Rangers
  • A’s (twice)
  • Yankees
  • Angels
  • Royals

The Angels have the AL’s lowest team strikeout rate. The A’s are second-lowest, and the Royals are third-lowest, and the Yankees are fourth-lowest, and the Rangers are sixth-lowest. The average AL hitter has struck out 21% of the time. The average AL hitter that Felix has faced so far has struck out 18% of the time, and while that’s not a huge difference, it’s still pretty big. Felix will face less contact-oriented opponents. When that happens, you could see more strikeouts and more quality contact when the bat meets the ball. There are always trade-offs. Felix’s pitches still move like crazy so he shouldn’t be thought of as hittable. He’s just probably more hittable. Velocity drops don’t just do nothing.

We have a Felix who isn’t throwing as hard, and we have a Felix who isn’t throwing consistent strikes. Still, we have a Felix who’s remained moderately effective, so it’s not all bad news. He remains a difficult pitcher to square up, but with a reduced margin of error, it seems Felix might be trying to be more careful. That’s the somewhat positive spin. The more negative spin would be that better contact is coming, and maybe Felix is just hurt, plain and simple. I see it, and I get it. I always try to give ace pitchers the benefit of the doubt. Of course, at some point, every ace pitcher stops being an ace.





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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Shirtless Bartolo Colon
Member

I used to throw way up in the 90’s too.

Of course, that was way back in the 90’s.