Felix Hernandez: Pitcher With A Catcher

Jeff Sullivan · May 20, 2014 at 4:32 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I mentioned something briefly in the podcast I wanted to expand upon. One of the things we’ve learned about Mike Zunino is he’s an extremely capable receiver. The Mariners haven’t had many of those, aside from Jesus Sucre, who played eight times. I was beside myself with excitement over Sucre’s receiving skills, and I’ll never forget him even though I’ll probably never see him play again. So, the Mariners have been without receivers, and in the last few years, we’ve started to better understand what that’s meant. And now that’s all changed.

I was wrong about something I said — Felix wasn’t constantly getting screwed by the zone. In 2011 and 2012, Felix’s strike zone was basically normal. But in other years, it’s been disadvantageous, and in 2014, it’s been the opposite of that, as Felix has gotten more of the benefit of the doubt around the edges. We’ve seen Felix with bad receiving before, and we’ve seen him with roughly average receiving before. Now we’re seeing him with good receiving, and Felix is running a career-best strike rate.

I’m going to give you two tables and one .gif. The first table uses data grabbed from Matthew’s StatCorner. It covers the PITCHf/x era, from 2008-2014, and you’re going to see a few numbers — rate of balls within the strike zone, and rate of strikes outside of the strike zone. You’ll see Felix’s rates, the league-average rates, and the differences. Let’s just embed that table now:

Year zTkB% League Difference oTkS% League Difference
2008 26% 20% 6% 7.0% 8.1% -1.1%
2009 23% 18% 5% 5.8% 7.6% -1.8%
2010 19% 16% 3% 5.8% 7.5% -1.7%
2011 16% 16% 0% 8.4% 7.4% 1.0%
2012 15% 15% 0% 7.7% 7.0% 0.7%
2013 17% 14% 3% 5.7% 7.1% -1.4%
2014 10% 14% -4% 11.2% 7.4% 3.8%

zTkB%: rate of called pitches in the zone called balls
oTkS%: rate of called pitches out of the zone called strikes

For the first time, this year, Felix is getting fewer called balls in the zone than the average. Additionally, he’s getting more strikes outside of the zone, and the differences aren’t small, relatively speaking. Part of this, I’m willing to credit to improvements in Felix’s command. It’s easier to catch a pitcher who knows where the ball is going. But the catcher is also just a better catcher than Felix has mostly thrown to before, and Felix has benefited by having more places to throw the ball and get himself a strike.

Where has there been the biggest difference? To me, I think it’s around the bottom of the strike zone. Let’s create a box, from 1.5 to 2 feet above the ground, and from one foot to the left of the center of the plate to one foot to the right. It’s a rectangle around the bottom of the zone, with an area of one square foot, and in 2008, Felix got 24% strikes on called pitches in the box. This year that’s up to 80%. Those numbers speak for themselves. Except they don’t, accurately, because they ought to be put in a league context. The league overall has seen a rising strike rate on those pitches, but still, here’s another table:

Year Felix, Strike% MLB RHP, Strike% Difference P/GS
2008 24% 44% -20% 5.9
2009 24% 44% -20% 7.1
2010 26% 49% -23% 7.8
2011 41% 52% -11% 7.3
2012 43% 59% -16% 5.2
2013 57% 64% -7% 6.4
2014 80% 70% 10% 7.0

In the first column (after the year), you see Felix’s rate of strikes on called pitches in the box. In the next column, there’s the league-average rate for big-league righties. Then there’s the difference, and then there’s the average number of called pitches Felix has thrown in that box per start. He’s always hovered around seven of those pitches, and where he used to come in 20 percentage points below average, now he’s above average by ten percentage points. Felix has always pitched low, and he’s always gotten whiffs and grounders low, but now he’s also finding some consistent called strikes, basically for the first time. Some of this is Felix; a lot of this is Zunino.

As a visual, I’ve created a little .gif using data from Texas Leaguers. Here are Felix’s called strike zones, from 2008-2014:


Maybe that makes things more clear for you. Maybe it doesn’t, but if the .gif doesn’t show you the pattern, the tables should. What Felix Hernandez has is the best strike zone he’s ever had. This is in large part because he has presumably the best catcher he’s ever had. So he has the best strike rate he’s ever had, and a .618 opponent OPS despite having pitched with the flu. Felix was an ace while pitching to wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men. Felix could’ve been an ace while pitching to Ryan Doumit. It’s not like Mike Zunino is the reason why Felix is Felix. But while Felix now does most of the work, Zunino’s able to give him a little help, and while maybe you think that’s “cheap”, it’s a part of the game, and Felix deserves it after all the Olivos and Johnsons and Johjimas and Monteros and Moores. This is righting past wrongs, and Felix is getting something he’s never been able to get.

Felix Hernandez is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Now he gets to work with one of the best receivers in baseball. I’ve always been fond of any battery with Felix in it, but now I don’t have to cover one of my eyes. Now, finally, Felix is getting some damned breaks.


8 Responses to “Felix Hernandez: Pitcher With A Catcher”

  1. californiamariner on May 20th, 2014 6:08 pm

    Really great stuff! Love all the content this week Jeff.

  2. Westside guy on May 20th, 2014 8:14 pm

    I was reading some of Matthew’s stuff on catcher framing recently, and was surprised to find out that Olivo, while still bad, was significantly better than Rob or Johjima in this regard to the tune of 1+ calls a game. Basically, on average Olivo lost slightly less than one call per came, while the other two lost on the order of 2.2-2.5 per game.

    Also, according to Matthew’s numbers, the difference going from a Johnson or a Johjima to a Zunino is three strike calls per game. That sure sounds significant to me.

  3. Westside guy on May 20th, 2014 8:18 pm

    Just to follow up, Zunino is currently at +1.33 calls per game.

  4. bookbook on May 21st, 2014 7:14 am

    So, Zunino’s our best first round pick since A-Rod? Damning with faint praise?

  5. eddie on May 21st, 2014 8:41 am

    Watching Zunino on TV and seeing the slight adjustments he gives pitches I can believe that he is a mighty good catcher. There’s no lurching the ball over an inch or so like you see with other (inferior) catchers and their lurching. I would think that a lurching to an umpire would be a dead giveaway and a slight adjustment isn’t.

  6. murphy_dog on May 21st, 2014 11:08 am

    Excellent article, thanks!

    And Zunino hasn’t bitten anyone’s ear off either!!!

  7. BoomBoom on May 21st, 2014 2:47 pm

    Here I thought I was the only one with a man crush on Sucre. The guy is a big cat back there. He is so smooth and athletic behind the plate. Just a fun guy to watch catch and there aren’t many of those.

    The good news, as Jeff’s post points out is that Zunino is doing a heck of a job back there, too, besides doing damage with his bat.

    Thanks for this, Jeff.

  8. Zeke on May 21st, 2014 8:55 pm

    Great stuff. Of course, Zunino also catches our other pitchers. Be interesting to see whether they enjoyed similar changes.

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