An Open Letter To Rafael Chaves
By most accounts, your reputation among pitching coaches in the organization is second to none. People talk about your great rapport with the guys on the staff, especially Felix, and your willingness to listen in an attempt to make sure you get the best out of the guys on your staff.
So, I’m appealing to that second virtue – the ability to listen. I know, I’m just a fan, a guy who watches games from thousands of miles away, and I have no contact with the guys in the locker room. But I think, if you’re willing to hear me out, you might find that what I have to say is of interest to you.
You have a couple of 21-year-old kids in your rotation right now, the younger of which is the prize of the organization and the best arm the team has ever developed. Felix Hernandez, we all recognize, has limitless potential. His stuff is top notch, and his level of major league success at his age is extremely rare in the history of baseball.
However, there are still stretches where Felix looks eminently hittable, especially at the beginning of games. Last night, we saw another example of this, where the first four batters reached base and the Red Sox had scored a run and loaded the bases before the Mariners were able to record an out. This has been a common theme all year, as Felix is allowing a .370 batting average in the first inning, and it’s actually unusual for him to get out of the first inning without already being behind.
Now, I know that you guys believe that his struggles are directly related to his command, or lack thereof. When he keeps his fastball down and gets ahead in the count, he does fine, but he struggles when he falls behind hitters and leaves the fastball up at the belt. There’s no doubt that if Felix could just put his fastball in better spots, he’d be significantly more successful.
But he can’t.
Felix’s command of his fastball has never consistently been there. He didn’t have fastball command in Everett, Wisconsin, Inland Empire, San Antonio, or Tacoma, and he doesn’t have it in Seattle. At this point in his development, he’s simply not able to repeatedly put his fastball where he wants it. We all hope that his command improves as he gets more experience, but it could take him years to learn how to spot his fastball. It may never happen. It certainly won’t happen overnight.
This team needs Felix to be better in 2007 than he has been. Since it’s unlikely that you can fix his command before his next start, there has to be another way you can help Felix get over his first inning struggles. Thankfully, I believe there is. It’s pitch selection.
Last night (6/26), Felix threw 10 straight fastballs to start the game. Coco Crisp singled on an 0-2 fastball. Dustin Pedroia singled on the first pitch he saw, a pitch he knew was going to be a fastball. David Ortiz drew a four pitch walk, all on fastballs. The bases were loaded with nobody out after 8 pitches, all fastballs.
In his previous start against the Pirates (6/21), Felix threw 13 consecutive fastballs to start the game. Those 13 pitches turned into 5 outs, as the Pirates hitters aren’t very good.
In the start against Houston (6/15), he threw 7 straight fastballs to start the game, tossed in a hanging slider to Carlos Lee, and then threw four more fastballs. 12 of his first 13 pitches of the game were fastballs. The Astros went 3 for 4 off Felix in the first inning.
In the start against San Diego (6/10), he threw 7 straight fastballs to start the game, which resulted in a leadoff walk to Marcus Giles and a first pitch strike to Jose Cruz Jr. He then went change-up, fastball, slider, curve and got Cruz to ground out back to the mound.
In the start against Baltimore, he actually threw a slider on the second pitch, getting a called strike and leading to an 0-2 count. He then threw a fastball that got ripped for a double.
Through extensive charting of the games Felix pitches in, supplemented by the data culled from MLB Advanced Media’s Pitch F/X system, it has become apparent that Felix throws an extraordinary amount of fastballs in the first ten pitches of each game. In June, here are his pitch selections by game date:
Pitch 6/26 6/21 6/15 6/10 6/4 FB% 1 FB FB FB FB FB 100% 2 FB FB FB FB SL 80% 3 FB FB FB FB FB 100% 4 FB FB FB FB FB 100% 5 FB FB FB FB FB 100% 6 FB FB FB FB SL 80% 7 FB FB FB FB SL 80% 8 FB FB SL SL CH 40% 9 FB FB FB FB CH 80% 10 FB FB FB SL FB 80%
10 straight fastballs last night. 10 straight fastballs the start before. 9 out of 10 in the start before that. The game against Baltimore on 6/4 is the massive outlier, where he went to the breaking ball early after giving up a lead-off double against, what else, an 0-2 fastball. And it worked, as he gave up just a Nick Markakis single the rest of the inning.
This is taking “establish the fastball” to an entirely different level. This is predictability beyond comprehension, and every team in baseball has caught on. Felix put four guys on base by chucking fastballs last night, then struck out J.D. Drew with four consecutive offspeed pitches.
You’re the pitching coach. You have a 21-year-old pitcher who badly needs coaching. Intervene. Take over control of the pitch selection to start the game. Make Felix throw a change-up or a curve ball to the first batter. Throw a first pitch slider in the first inning.
What you’re letting him do is simply not working. By throwing nothing but fastballs to the first several batters of the game, every game, he’s asking hitters to come to the plate and sit on a straight, high velocity pitch that they know they’re going to get. Is it any wonder the league is hitting .370 off Felix Hernandez in the first inning?
Pitch selection won’t fix Felix’s command, and it won’t make him a Cy Young contender. Command is a problem, but so is his pitch selection. You can fix the latter.