Game 147, Yankees at Mariners
Felix Hernandez vs. Phil Hughes, 7:10pm
Happy Felix Day! From 2009-2011, you’d be hard pressed to find a more consistent pitcher than King Felix. His FIP has swung between 3.09 and 3.02, and he’ll be worth 6+ wins for the third straight year. His pitch mix and velocity are quite consistent within the season too. Look at his pitch fx velocity graph here, for example: there are the occasional dips/spikes in velo (which may have more to do with pitch fx calibration issues than anything), but by and large, hitters know what they’re going to see from Felix. They just can’t hit it.
I bring it up because his opponent tonight, Phil Hughes, might be one of the more volatile pitchers in the league. There are a number of ways to measure volatility – this article at Beyond the Boxscore describes one, for example. But I’m not talking about a pitcher’s results, I mean: I have no idea what Hughes will throw tonight.
Phil Hughes was the #4 prospect in baseball in 2007, then got yo-yo’d between the bullpen and the rotation with a brilliant relief season in 2009 and a very solid year as a starter in 2010. Injuries have played a role in these moves, as he missed much of 2008 with rib/torso injuries. But a bout of dead arm this spring led to low velocity and ineffectiveness in April has led him to have one of the more experimental seasons I can remember. He toyed with a slider early on – a pitch he threw in 2009, but shelved in 2010 in favor of a change. His fastball averaged around 89 MPH in April, then 90 and even 92 later in the year. More than anything though, Hughes keeps working on his curve. It was a useful pitch for him when he was breaking into the majors, but he hasn’t been able to sustain that early success with it.
In April, his curve velocity was down considerably, along with his fastballs’. He returned to the big leagues with a new curveball grip to improve movement and velocity, and…nothing happened. Then, on August 2nd, he was throwing curves in the low 80s against the White Sox in his best outing of the year. I don’t think he changed the grip on it, but it took him a while to get the bump in velocity on it that he said he was after back in July. So what’s happened since August 2nd? His curve’s back under 73 MPH, and his FB velocity’s down a bit as well.
This seems like an awful lot of tweaking, but then you’d tweak everything you could too if you were getting torched like Hughes has this year. I think Hughes natural talent makes all of this more visible – he’s been scrutinized before he ever broke in with the Yankees, and his changing roles, injuries and yes, the team he plays for mean that we get to hear about every time he changes a breaking ball grip, or feels tightness in his shoulder, or gets extra work with the pitching coach. But the injuries have just brought him down to the level that many, most, pitchers inhabit every day.
Think of RA Dickey ditching his old breaking ball and coming up a forkball he dubbed “the Thang”…and getting pounded just as hard until he started throwing a knuckeball. Even between games, this sort of thing must be going on all the time – Jason Vargas talked about shifting from his slider to a cutter this year, and for people with less of a track record, the temptation to improvise and experiment must be pretty great. The pitching coaches may tell you that consistency and muscle memory is key, but it ain’t the pitching coach that’s going to call you into his office for a difficult discussion if your curve ball gets consistently pounded.
The point of this is: treasure Felix Hernandez. Phil Hughes was 18-8 last year, and the year before that was a shut-down late-inning reliever. Felix Hernandez was an amazing starter last year, and an amazing starter the year before that. Tonight, I’d guess he’s going to be an amazing starter. Never leave us, Felix.
The aggressive (and aggressively left-handed) line-up:
I know Bard caught recently, but they could’ve had 8 of 9.