Felix Hernandez Is Trending

Jeff Sullivan · May 29, 2014 at 4:09 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Felix Hernandez, last night, was absolutely outstanding, again. He didn’t quite get the official complete game, because the Angels are dicks, but he did dominate from the first pitch, because the Angels are stupid. Basically, Felix is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and he pitched like one of the best pitchers in baseball, which isn’t something that he’ll always do, but which is something he’ll do more often than most.

You’ll remember that, not long ago, Felix had a whole start where he didn’t strike out a single batter. Turns out Felix knows what he’s doing. Since then, in four games, he’s whiffed 30 while walking four, and because of that little tiny skid that overlapped with Felix also being sick, we’ve been able to appreciate these performances without taking them totally for granted. That’s the danger of steady near-perfection — you assume it, and you enjoy it less. Throw in the occasional clunker and you keep everything fresh, and we all got to enjoy seeing Felix mow down a talented division rival.

One of the storylines coming out of the game is that Felix threw some pitches in the mid-90s, which is old territory for him. When asked about the velocity, Felix said “I still got it” with a grin, and he’s clearly been feeling strong on the recent end of the flu. Now, it needs to be noted that Felix doesn’t still have his old velocity in his back pocket. His annual maximum velocity has been dropping, to go along with his average velocities. But because people have been talking about some of Felix’s trends, I thought I’d note a small handful of them. They’re not being woven into a narrative, but what they all have in common is that they have to do with Felix Hernandez, and Felix is the best.

Let’s begin with the velocity angle, using data from Brooks Baseball. What Felix doesn’t have are his old top velocities. But here’s a table of average speed by pitch. You might notice something. If you don’t, I’ll point it out to you in words, because I noticed something, hence this table being embedded.

Year Four-seam Sinker Change Slider Curve
2008 95.7 94.8 87.9 87.3 82.3
2009 95.2 94.5 89.8 87.0 82.5
2010 95.0 94.4 90.4 86.6 82.9
2011 94.2 94.0 90.1 86.9 82.4
2012 93.1 92.5 89.3 85.7 82.1
2013 92.8 92.4 89.7 84.9 81.3
2014 93.7 93.3 90.4 85.5 81.6

The classifications aren’t perfect. Surely, some four-seamers and sinkers are in the wrong bins, and, surely, some changeups are in the wrong bins. But don’t worry about those little details, because what’s important is the bigger trend the data captures. Felix’s average velocity is actually up. He’s throwing harder four-seamers. He’s throwing harder sinkers. He’s throwing harder changeups and sliders and curveballs. We all got used to Felix slowing down, and he hardly suffered because of it, but now this is unexpected. Felix’s velocities have turned back the clock, and if you consider that he spent a lot of his velocity decline period learning how to pitch better, probably the last thing hitters want to see is a better-pitching version of Felix Hernandez who also throws a bit harder. I don’t know how much this boost helps, but it’s not at all something we would’ve been looking for.

Now let’s move on from there. Let’s spend a little time talking and thinking about pitch locations. First, here’s a table estimating Felix’s rates of grooved pitches. This is arbitrary, so I came up with two methods. Basically, this is a table showing Felix’s rates of pitches over the middle of the plate, with some elevation. The columns are different, with the numbers in the last column being bigger, but the same story gets told.

Year %Grooved, 1 %Grooved, 2
2008 8.9% 18%
2009 9.1% 18%
2010 9.3% 20%
2011 8.0% 18%
2012 8.1% 17%
2013 8.8% 18%
2014 6.3% 16%

The lowest number in the first column: 2014’s. The lowest number in the second column: 2014’s. The differences aren’t huge, but Felix has been grooving fewer pitches than ever, to the tune of one or two pitches a game. That’s one or two fewer potential meatballs, and meatballs are the ones you feel most bad about. Consider this evidence that Felix has improved his command. And we can look at something else more significant.

Felix is a guy who always says he wants to be pitching down in the zone. How often has he actually been doing that? Let’s set a threshold, at two feet above the ground at the front of the plate. Following, a table, with Felix’s rates of pitches thrown below that bar.

Year Under 2
2008 29%
2009 35%
2010 34%
2011 38%
2012 36%
2013 44%
2014 51%

Used to be, Felix threw about a third of his pitches down. That rate hiked up in 2013, and it’s hiked up again this year, to the point where half of his pitches are down. That rate ranks third-highest in baseball at the moment, Felix surrounded by a bunch of groundball pitchers, and this probably has a lot to do with Mike Zunino and Felix’s trust in Zunino to get him strikes. It also has to do with what Zunino calls, and it also has to do with Felix being better able to locate all of his pitches.

Why might this be important? During the PITCHf/x era, Felix has allowed a dinger every 128 strikes above two feet. Meanwhile, he’s allowed a dinger every 191 strikes below two feet. Felix this season has allowed three home runs, and zero since April 26. A lot of dinger prevention is noise, but some of it can be under a pitcher’s control, and by staying down so much, Felix might be able to sustain some of his dinger suppression. Or, in easier words: low strikes better than higher strikes. For Felix, anyhow.

We’re not done, but we’re getting there. Let’s shift again, to stuff having to do with pitch mix. Here’s a table, showing the percentage of Felix’s strikeouts ending with a breaking ball:

Year BreakingK%
2008 36%
2009 40%
2010 26%
2011 25%
2012 27%
2013 18%
2014 7.2%

The slider? The curveball? Good pitches, both of them, but no longer really used as putaway pitches. Felix has gone to his fastballs more, and his changeup more, and as you’ve noticed, he’s remained fantastic, with a whole lot of strikeouts. You think of breaking balls as being swing-and-miss pitches, but maybe Felix knows hitters are thinking that, too. Yet he has perhaps the greatest changeup in the galaxy, and in countless senses it’s probably unfair. And his changeup is basically a fastball, and he also has other fastballs, and the long and short of it is hitters should probably try not to get into two-strike counts when Felix is on the mound because what hope do you have?

At last, a relatively minor thing. Felix hasn’t abandoned his curveball — he still uses it often against lefties. He just uses it more often to get himself set up. The curveball shows up earlier in counts, and here’s a table of his annual curveball strike rates:

Year CU Strike%, LHB
2008 58%
2009 56%
2010 62%
2011 59%
2012 61%
2013 58%
2014 67%

Never before until this year was it a reliable strike pitch. Maybe the differences seem small to you, but the difference between a 60% strike rate and a 67% strike rate is the difference between Fernando Rodney and Felix himself. Felix has had a better feel for his curve so far this year against lefties, keeping it in or around the zone. And Mike Zunino has done a good job of catching the curve down in the zone, allowing Felix to gain a strike on the given unfortunate batter. Pitching is complicated, but Felix is doing basically all of it well. It’s true on the macro level, and it’s true on the micro level.

That’s what I’ve got. It’s a lot to consume. The gist: Felix has been amazing for a while. But, underneath, he’s been changing and adjusting, in order to stay around elite level. And this year, he might be the best he’s been, given his approach, his intellect, and his command. It doesn’t hurt to also have a hell of a catcher. What you don’t see when you stare at a rock are all of its spinning electrons. But that rock, in a way, is in constant motion. The rock is a different rock every second, even if it looks like the same old rock. We’ve got us a pretty rock.


5 Responses to “Felix Hernandez Is Trending”

  1. Kazinski on May 29th, 2014 7:22 pm

    To give you an idea of how important fastball velocity by itself is, consider that Brandon Maurer leads the M’s starters in average fastball velocity.

  2. smb on May 29th, 2014 7:26 pm

    Excellent work, Jeff. Thanks for putting this together. I feel like I’m seeing the King turn into Pedro 2.0 before my eyes…Pedro has always been my favorite “comp of greatness’ for Felix, but if he adjusts in such ways as he gets older that he actually becomes even more effective than when he was just blowing people away mostly on sheer talent and ability alone, that will be the most compelling supporting evidence yet. Well, that and being able to turn basically anything he throws into an out-pitch. God I love Felix.

  3. Westside guy on May 29th, 2014 10:42 pm

    I still can’t grasp how a 90mph change-up can even exist…

  4. maqman on May 30th, 2014 2:46 am

    How do you value Felix? Just imagine the Mariners without him.

  5. benshire on June 3rd, 2014 10:28 pm

    Something to consider with all the numbers…I believe I saw a mechanical change with his arm this year that wasn’t there in the recent past. He’s a little shorter on the way back than in the past and I think that could have a direct impact on lower pitches and in some ways could contribute to increased velocity.

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