Felix, Velocity, and Ground Balls
So, besides the Mariners stringing a bunch of singles together on Friday and Saturday, the main storyline to come out of the team’s first four games probably all have to do with Felix Hernandez. We knew his velocity was down in spring training, but it’s spring training, and he still blowing hitters away, so there didn’t seem to be much reason for concern. Then, the team went to japan, and Felix was still throwing in the 89-92 range, but again, he shut down the A’s with few problems, and the reduced velocity seemed to not be any kind of issue.
On Saturday night, though, Felix continued to throw in the low-90s with his fastball. For the first few innings, the results were still fine, but eventually the poorly located hittable fastballs caught up with him, and the A’s hit some balls really hard. But, more than the missing velocity, his location seemed to be the real problem.
I went into more detail this morning over on FanGraphs, but the short version is that I’d say his fly ball tendencies during his first two starts concern me more than the lack of top-end fastball speed. Felix’s best pitches have always been his off-speed offerings, especially his change-up. Unlike a guy such as Michael Pineda, Felix doesn’t need a mid-90s fastball to get hitters out. Even with very little separation between his fastball and change-up on Saturday, he still got eight swinging strikes on 26 change-ups, a ridiculous percentage even when facing a team like the A’s. Most pitchers would kill to have an 89-93 MPH fastball, an elite change-up, and two well above average breaking balls, which is what Felix was throwing on Saturday.
So, I’m not worried about whether Felix can get batters out with what he’s currently throwing. If it’s well located, he’d still have one of the best arsenals of any pitcher in baseball. But, if the diminished velocity sticks around, location is going to become key for him, and it’s not something that has traditionally been his strong suit. He left a lot of fastballs up in the zone on Saturday, and he’s previously been able to get away with that because those pitches have been 95+, but when they’re 92, they get whacked.
Felix’s command is better than it used to be, but it’s still not consistent from start to start. Hopefully, his velocity will come back and he’ll continue to be able to dominate with less than stellar command as he has through most of his entire career. However, if Felix is heading down the Tim Lincecum career path, and he needs to adapt to pitching off his secondary stuff instead of his fastball, he’s going to have to locate his pitches better. It’s easier to hit your spots at 92 than 95, so this might not be as difficult a transition as it sounds, but it’s one Felix may have to make.
Of course, he can make this all moot by coming out and firing 95 at some point in the next week or two, and I certainly hope that he does. But, velocity is a young man’s game, and it’s not all that surprising that Felix’s top end fastball isn’t what it used to be. The key for him to remain an elite starter will be figuring out how to keep getting the necessary sink and location to remain a ground ball pitcher, and use the secondary stuff to rack up the strikeouts. If he keeps pitching up in the zone like he did on Saturday, he might not be as King-esque as he has been in prior years.