King Felix v. 2017

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Felix Hernandez is undoubtedly one of baseball’s greatest active pitchers: with six All-Star appearances, a Cy Young Award and two second-place appearances, King Félix ranks 13th among active players with 52.4 WAR. At 31 years old, he should have many effective years ahead of him. However, a calf injury in 2016 limited him to 153 ⅓ innings — the first time since 2008 he pitched fewer than 200 innings — and shoulder inflammation in 2017 put him on the disabled list in April and May.  Overall in 2017,  Hernández has pitched well, but not like his usual ace self, with a 3.88 ERA (109 ERA+) and 1.356 WHIP.  He has pitched better in the six games since returning from the DL on June 23, with a 3.25 ERA and 1.194 WHIP in that period.  

What he throws: Hernández throws five, or perhaps six, pitches: Four-seam fastball (“FF”), sinker (“SI”), changeup (“CH”), slider (“SL”), and curve (“CU”).  Brooks Baseball also identifies a very rare cutter, but if he does throw one it blends in with his other pitches.  

When Hernández entered the major leagues in 2007, he threw a very hard fastball, with his four-seam fastball and sinker both averaging in the upper 90s. That quickly dropped to the mid-90s, and his velocity has been dropping consistently over the past several years (the chart below uses Brooks Baseball velocity numbers); in 2017, his four-seam has averaged 91.1 mph and his sinker 90.6.

Pitch usage and trends: Hernández has an unusually balanced repertoire, with four of his pitches each used between 20-30% of the time; his slider (8.4%) is his least-used pitch because he almost never throws it to left-handed batters (1.2% of pitches), but right-handed batters see 14.0% sliders. When ahead in the count, Hernández throws more changeups – 36% of his two-strike pitches are changeups – but even when behind in the count, he is willing to throw any of his pitches.

Unsurprisingly for such a veteran pitcher, Hernández has been fairly consistent with his pitch mix game-to-game since the 2016 season.  His fastball velocity bumped up a few notches after his first half-dozen games of 2016, but so far in 2017 his velocity has been fairly constant.  

Pitch value: While Hernández’s changeup and slider remain very good pitches (as judged by total bases yielded per 100 pitches), and he remains around league average for balls per 100 pitches, his four-seam fastball and curve are significantly worse than average by TB/100.

More alarmingly, his sinker has been just bad this season.  The 90 sinkers he has thrown to left-handed batters have yielded four home runs and three doubles as well as six singles, for a shocking 31.1 TB/100; righties have 15.1 TB/100 against the pitch. According to Fangraphs, Hernández’s sinker value has been in decline since its peak in his Cy Young year, 2010, but this has been its worst season yet.

Pitch location. Hernández may have lost some velocity, but he still shows excellent ability to locate his pitches.  His four-seam fastballs show clear clusters at the top and outer part of the strike zone to left-handed batters, and outer middle to righties.  His changeup, curve, and slider all target the bottom edge of the strike zone, while his sinker tends to hit the bottom third of the strike zone to left-handers but middle and inner half to right-handed batters. Given his poor results with the sinker, he may need to be less aggressive with the pitch and hope batters chase it more; as it is, he gets very few swinging strikes on the pitch (2.2% swinging strikes; league average on sinkers is 6.1%).  

Featured image courtesy of RotoExperts.com

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Ian is an immunologist and virologist who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons. Most of his time is spent driving his kids to baseball and soccer games, during which he indoctrinates his children on the glories of Pedro Martinez, the many virtues of the Montreal Expos, and other important information.

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