Felix Hernandez: Pitcher With A Catcher
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:
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|
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.