Felix, Pitch Selection, Part 843
The M’s just completed a sweep of a pretty good baseball team. Hooray. They’re now only 4 1/2 games out, and with some lousy NL Central teams coming up after today’s distraction in Cleveland, they have a chance to keep the winning going.
But, you know me, I’m generally a lot more interested in the process than the result. I like to find out why things happen, rather than just settling for accepting that they did. And, one of my obvious obsessions over the past 18 months has been the pitch selection of Felix Hernandez. It all started with the Charting Felix series last year, and in the last few days, I’ve spent some time talking with Dan Fox, who is doing great work plotting velocity and break data from MLB.com’s enhanced gameday, which basically turns game charting into an automated process and makes my life a lot easier.
So, to help Dan be able to translate the velocity/data numbers from gameday into understanding pitch types, I watched yesterday’s game with Gameday open simultaneously, so I could quickly associate the pitch that he threw with how gameday described it. He’s going to use the pitch descriptions and his data to do some cool stuff pretty soon. But, since I have the information from yesterday’s game now, and I find this stuff remarkably interesting, here’s a look at Felix’s pitch selection against the Padres.
Since he threw 93 pitches, I’ve broken them out into 15 pitch segments, which allows us to view his start in 1/6th chunks and watch the transformation as the game goes on. To the charting – by request, the italicized pitches in the sequence charts are the first pitch of an at-bat.
Sequence: FB, FB, FB, FB, FB, FB, FB, CH, FB, SL, CB, FB, FB, SL, FB
Results: Walk (fastball), Groundout (curveball), Strikeout (slider).
It’s the same gameplan he takes to the hill every single time. He begins the game by just throwing fastball after fastball, to the great surprise of no one. Because it’s his worst pitch and the one he has the least command over, he falls behind hitters, gets in more fastball counts, and generally struggles. We’ve pointed this out for over a year now, and it’s blindingly obvious – Felix’s struggles in the first inning are completely related to his pitch selection. Yes, if he had pinpoint command of his fastball, it wouldn’t be a problem, but he doesn’t. So when he goes all fastballs, all the time, he struggles.
Sequence: FB, FB, SL, FB, FB, SL, FB, FB, SL, FB, CH, FB, CH, SL, CB
Results: Groundout (fastball), Single (fastball), Strikeout (slider), Single (fastball)
After feeling that the fastball was significantly established, Felix converts to using his entire arsenal. Of course, it’s still a pretty predictable two-fastballs-then-a-slider pattern to start off, but when he works in the change-up and curve at the end, he’s good. Both hits came off badly located fastballs up in the zone early in the count, but when he threw anything that moved, the Padres were helpless.
Sequence: SL, CH, FB, FB, CB, CB, FB, FB, FB, CH, FB, FB, FB, SL, SL
Results: Strikeout (change), Groundout (fastball), Groundout (fastball), Single (fastball), Double Play (change), groundout (fastball)
This was Felix at his best. He threw a couple of nasty change-ups, including a first-pitch change to Adrian Gonzalez that produced an inning ending double play directly after throwing another badly located high fastball that got hit for a single. Even when he threw the fastballs, he was keeping hitters off balance, getting Marcus Giles to groundout on a sinker after starting him with back to back curveballs.
Sequence: SL, CH, SL, FB, FB, FB, FB, CH, FB, FB, SL, CB, FB, CH, CH?
Results: Home Run (fastball), Groundout (slider), Single (fastball), Home Run (change-up? I’m not sure, honestly)
The crappy fourth inning. Generally, you’d expect some rant from me here about bad pitch selection causing the home runs, but really, it wasn’t. The 3-2 fastball to Cameron was another badly located high fastball, but it came after five consecutive offspeed pitches to start the at-bat. It was the only fastball Cameron saw the whole at-bat, as they clearly had a gameplan off attacking him with stuff that moved. On a 3-2 count, throwing a guy a fastball after seeing a lot of breaking stuff isn’t a bad idea. It was just put in a bad spot, and Cameron jumped on it. It happens.
The Sledge homer, though, is the one that just makes you shake your head. After giving up a single on a fastball, Felix threw a first pitch change-up to Sledge, and again, there’s nothing to complain about there. He was still mixing his pitches and staying away from first-pitch fastballs to every hitter. But, the second pich… I honestly don’t know what it was. 88 MPH, no movement whatsoever, belt high, and just a Weaveresque meatball. I’m guessing it was a change-up that he just overthrew, or maybe he took an awful lot off a fastball, but either way, the result was horrible. It was a mistake pitch, a marshmellow soft meatball with no movement. It’s not something you ever see Felix throw, so we certainly can’t call it predictable. Something just went wrong with that pitch and Sledge made him pay for it.
Sequence: FB, FB, FB, SL, CB, FB, FB, SL, SL, CB, CB, CH, CB, FB, CH
Results: Strikeout (slider), Popout (curve), Strikeout (slider), Groundout (fastball)
Here, again, is Good Felix. If there’s a pattern to his pitches, I can’t see it, and he kept throwing offspeed pitches on the first pitch of an-bat with great success. By keeping the hitters off balance so they couldn’t look for a fastball early in the at-bat, he got ahead and put them away with the nasty breaking balls.
Sequence: SL, FB, CB, CB, SL, CB, CH, SL, FB, CB, FB, SL, FB, SL, FB, FB, CB, CB
Results: Strikeout (curve), Flyout (slider), Single (fastball), Flyout (curve)
The last segment is 18 pitches, but again, we see the continuing de-evolution of Felix from his establish-the-fastball start to him practically overthrowing his breaking balls as he gets near the end of the game. But, as we continue to see, it works – the soft stuff gets outs, and the hard stuff gets hit.
Results By Type:
Fastball: 6 for 12, walk, home run
Curveball: 0 for 4
Slider: 0 for 6, 4 strikeouts
Change: 1 for 3, strikeout, double play, home run
The evolution of Felix during a game is fascinating to watch, at least, when it’s not aggravatingly frustrating. For whatever reason (be it organizational philosophy or just stubbornness of youth), he will begin every single game exactly the same way, despite the fact that it’s never done anything other than dig him a hole and run up his pitch count, before he settles into a pattern of varying his pitches and getting outs with breaking balls.
We all know that Felix’s fastball is his worst pitch. Yesterday, he threw it less than half the time, and with the exception of two swings, he mostly had success.
All I’m asking is that one of these days, the Mariners send him to the hill with a gameplan other than nothing-but-fastballs early. It’s not good for Felix, it’s not good for the team, and it’s frustrating as hell to watch.