With his fastball velocity at a personal low this season, Felix Hernandez is relying more and more on off-speed pitches. Can he adapt and remain one of baseball’s best in his 30s?
Four minutes into my interview with Felix Hernandez, I made the mistake of saying “fastball” one time too many.
“Stop with the fastball,” said a smiling Hernandez, who wouldn’t have smiled had I said it again. “It has nothing to do with the fastball.”
This was Saturday, which is important to point out, because Felix pitched what he thought was his best game of the year the next day. Up until that point, however, something about the King seemed off despite an ever-regal earned-run average of 2.27.
He was walking hitters at a career-high rate of 4.0 times per nine innings. He was striking hitters out at a career-low rate of 6.7 times per nine.
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His fielding independent pitching (FIP) — which approximates what a pitcher’s ERA should be based on average outcomes of balls in play — was a whopping 4.61. But like a golfer who drives it into the woods, hooks his approach shot around a tree and chips in for birdie, Hernandez has generally wiggled his way out of trouble this year.
Unfortunately for Mariners fans, this is baseball, where no flaw can hide for 162 games. And if Felix’s body of work in 2016 reflects his ability, that ERA will likely escalate.
So the question is: Has Hernandez just been a touch out of rhythm, or does he need to evolve? And if it’s the latter — how so?
What can’t be denied is that, before Sunday — when he allowed three runs and K’d nine in 7.1 innings — Felix’s average fastball was marked at a career-low 89.5 mph. “Marked” is the operative word here, because Hernandez claims the 86-88 mph pitches that PITCHf/x (a pitch-tracking system) labels as sinkers are often, in reality, change-ups.
Even so, considering the average velocity of his four-seamer is more than two mph lower than it was last season — not to mention more than six mph lower than when he first came into the league — some people are freaking out. Just don’t count Felix as one of them.
“A lot of people have been talking about my fastball, and I don’t know why,” said Hernandez, emphasizing that, while he has struggled with the command of his heater, it has nothing to do with the number on the radar gun. “I mean, last year was the same thing, and by the middle of the year I was fine. Just fine.”
So you don’t have any concerns about it? I asked.
Because it’s (your fastball’s velocity) dropping.
“It dropped last year. It dropped the year before,” Hernandez replied. “Everyone was panicked, except me. I know what I can do to win games and I’m not worried about it.”
Last year seemed to confirm that Felix does, indeed, know how to win, as he went 18-9 despite his team finishing 76-86. But last year also saw Hernandez log his worst ERA (3.53) since 2007 and highest FIP (3.72) since 2008.
Perhaps more noteworthy is the fact that his ERA went up in the middle of the season — jumping from 1.91 at the end of May to 3.66 at the end of August. Makes it hard to agree that everything was “just fine.”
This isn’t a knock on Hernandez, who has been the American League’s finest pitcher over the past 10 years. It’s more of a realistic view of a 30-year-old whose 2,313.1 innings are more than any active pitcher save Bartolo Colon (43 years old), CC Sabathia (35) and John Lackey (37). As Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. said Friday, “Ten or 11 years pitching in the big leagues? It can’t help but take its toll.”
Stottlemyre added that he and Hernandez have had multiple conversations about “the evolution of Felix.” No doubt Hernandez has made adjustments before.
If you look at the number of change-ups he threw in the middle of his career compared to his early years, it’s clear that he has compensated for a decline in velocity. But what about now? What, if anything, needs to change?
Stottlemyre said flat-out that he would like to see Hernandez throw inside more. He added that Felix has a tendency to go straight to his off-speed arsenal as soon as he gets behind in the count.
Hard to blame him. His “stuff” still ranks among the best in the game. But there are times when Stottlemyre wouldn’t mind watching Hernandez go back to the fastball after missing with it on the first pitch of an at-bat.
That hasn’t been happening of late. Over the past two seasons, Hernandez has used his four-seamer and sinker less and his change-up and breaking ball more. Whether it’s because of growing confidence in his off-speed stuff or dwindling confidence in his fastball, only he can know. What hasn’t changed, however, is the respect teammates and coaches have for him whenever he pitches.
“His stuff is so good that he can do whatever he wants on the mound,” said M’s catcher Chris Iannetta. “As far as having to make adjustments, I don’t really see it. He can go out and dominate with what he has.”
“I’d rather see him at 93 or 94, because at 88 or 90, it’s moving so much,” added Angels star Mike Trout, who has struck out 10 more times against Hernandez than any other big-league pitcher. “When all his pitches are working, he’s tough to hit.”
For the record, Hernandez confessed that he hasn’t pitched as well as he’d like to. He outwardly loathes his walk total, and told fans to expect more consistency.
He added that, per Stottlemyre’s advice, he throws a lot more fastballs in bullpen sessions, but has to stick with what he is most comfortable with “when it’s about winning.”
Can’t argue with that. Hernandez has given Seattle a chance every time he has taken the mound this season. Clearly, the man is still an ace.
But through eight starts, it’s hard to tell if he’s still a king.