Felix Hernandez, John Jaso Outwit the Rays

Felix Hernandez‘s perfect game on Wednesday was a testament to both his excellent stuff, but also a well-deserved outcome for an excellent game plan executed by he and catcher John Jaso. A former Ray himself, Jaso appeared to know just how to approach the Rays lineup, getting increasingly good results as the game went along:

That’s 5 swinging strikes through the first 61 pitches, and then 19 through the remaining 53 pitches. How did Felix do this? He and Jaso took advantage of an aggressive Rays plan by placing filthy breaking stuff further and further from the zone.

Despite yesterday’s no-no, the Tampa Bay Rays still lead league in walk-rate, and they are a typically patient team — almost to a fault. But against Felix Hernandez, they started aggressive. In the first three innings, the Rays put 4 first-pitch strikes into play — 2 four-seams and 2 pitches labeled “cutters” that are really just fastballs with a lot of movement.

If we break this game into three portions, we can see Hernandez had an evolving approach to the Rays lineup. Tampa Bay came out with a swing early strategy. And since Hernandez started in the zone early, he missed fewer bats earlier:

The Rays put 4 first pitches into play through the first three innings, then tried to put another 2 first pitches into play during the middle three, but they resulted in 1 foul ball and 1 swing and miss. By the final three innings, the Rays hitters had given up on the first pitch because Felix had given up on throwing strikes.

We can understand why the Rays said “No thanks” to pitch No. 1 in those final three frames when we look at how Felix’s approach evolved.

In the first two innings, Felix kept pretty close to the zone. But he got such good results from his off-speed stuff in the second inning — shown as the lower-right blob in “The Mid Felix Perfecto” — that he pretty much started throwing only Bugs Bunny stuff by the final third of the game.

We can see this manifest in his pitch selection:

By the final three innings, Felix threw his changeup more than all three of his fastballs combined (four-seam, cut and sinking). With only a combined 12 fastballs over his final 44 pitches, he needed to throw in the zone either.

Looking at where he threw after the 61 pitch mark, we can see he and Jaso recognized the aggressive Rays approach — and the Rays’ struggles to identify the off-speed stuff — and then moved out of the zone:

When the heart of the plate empties of pitches like that, it means something has to change — either for the hitters or the pitcher. In this case, the Rays needed to adjust.

By the top of the seventh inning, Joe Maddon apparently divined the new approach by Felix. So the Rays began to take more pitches, but the zone had grown during their aggressiveness, resulting in no less than three borderline strikes going the King’s way. Maddon then picked the next borderline strike and promptly got himself ejected.

He also got what he wanted:

Homeplate umpire Rob Drake called a strike on Matt Joyce in the final PA of the 7th inning — four-seamer that was high and away. Honestly, it was closer than the three previous lefty strikes, but Maddon chose that one to air his grievances. Afterwards, Felix did not try for many more lefty strikes — but he did throw one more to that exact same location against Carlos Pena in the top of the 8th — and this time his “cutter” was called a ball. Unfortunately for Maddon, the 1 extra pitch did not give Pena enough purchase, as the at bat still slipped into yet another strikeout for the King.

Of the 24 whiffs Felix induced, only 2 came on fastballs — a four-seamer and a sinker on pitches 104 and 107. Jaso and Felix found the breaking stuff was working, and so they made it work for them:

Congrats to Felix Hernandez for throwing a perfect game and getting filthy — and witty — while doing so.




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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


34 Responses to “Felix Hernandez, John Jaso Outwit the Rays”

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  1. sprot says:

    There’s something really wrong with you.

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  2. Thumper says:

    Great break down and analysis. Well done!

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  3. Fletch says:

    Very interesting and illuminating, and I love the pretty (and informative!) graphs.

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  4. Will says:

    Interesting breakdown, but how could you even consider the notion that catchers play an influential role in pitch outcomes? I mean, I realize that Hall of Fame catchers have been crediting their batterymates for decades, but what do they know? Cyberspace’s intellectual elite clearly knows better.

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    • Will says:

      Not sure if the sarcasm above was clear, but I enjoyed the piece very much. Great job. The reference to “cyberspace elite” was directed toward those criticizing the piece, most likely without reading. I hope Bradley didn’t take my comment as a slight.

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    • Juan says:

      No, catchers really do not know much. That’s why LaRussa selected
      (for most of his managerial career, if not all) Dave Duncan, a
      former catcher (in lieu of an ex-pitcher) as his pitching coach.
      I forget how many championships they won. You might ask
      Dave Stewart (Ace Pitcher of the Oakland A’s, 1988 – 1990), or
      Dennis Eckersley (their closer during said period). Additionally,
      I believe LaRussa and Duncan were the ones who invented the
      closer specialist. Do your research. Baseball has been around for
      over 150 Years.

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  5. Snowblind says:

    Beautiful breakdown and great credit to both Felix and Jaso. I have a feeling I’ll be savoring this analysis as much as I’ve been revisiting the video of each out…

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  6. CapSea says:

    While I’m sure fans of most teams say this, Felix often (though not always) pitches to contact. It’s also conceivable, if not likely, that in the beginning he was simply executing his normal game plan, and then when the perfect game was on he ramped it up. It’s one of the reasons I personally find the double digit strikeout total so impressive – he didn’t even seem like he was trying to get strikeouts until the game was past the 5th.

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    • I think you are very right to say he started with his usual plan, but saw they Rays had a new plan themselves, so he and Jaso adjusted. That’s why there was such an improvement after 61 pitches — and no line drives after the 5th inning.

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    • Balthazar says:

      So CapSea and Brad, both aspects seem true, from what Felix said in after game interviews, the commentary here, and other views on how the pitching pattern progressed. Felix said, explicitly, that he started thinking perfect game ‘in the 5th.’ One wonders if it was after the line drive he missed snaging which went right to Ackley. Then as Dave Cameron highlighted elsewhere yesterday, Felix’s velocity on his fastball ramped up _significantly_ in the latter innings, going from sitting at 92-94, to sitting at 94-96. He threw fewer fastballs, but definitely was trying to throw them _by_ hitters, not just for weak contact. But as the really choice analysis shows here, Jaso and Felix really went to running offspeed stuff off the corners in the last three innings, exploiting the Rays go-and-get-it modality. Felix also credited Jaso with this on the play calling, and Jaso said the same thing: Felix’s command of his breaking pitches was so good that he, Jaso, had confidence in calling for them on the black _in fastball situations_ in the late innings; he knew Felix would hit the glove that day, so they didn’t give in to the batters and chance an easy hit from a pitch they were sitting on.

      I happened to be watching a rebroadcast of the last few Rays batters in this game today. Going by the sequence on the final batter, it illustrates your points well, Brad. Fastball high and away at 95; 1-0. Slider, 86, good break but well off the plate; 2-0. Jaso calls slider again same place, comes in 86 on the black away and nasty, swinging strike; 2-1 (obviously the batter was looking fastball and bit on the velocity). Curve, starts high and drops all the way through the zone at 83, called strike; 2-2, might be the best pitch Felix threwall day. Change-up down and in (Felix’s best pitch, everybody knows it’s coming), might not even have been a strike about 86, but the ump rings up the batter and the game; 2-3. Only one fastball, but Jaso changed pitches and breaks, changed locations, has confidence that Felix will execute. And he did. Really filthy ensemble.

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  7. Baron Samedi says:

    So, Felix Hernandez pitched really well but also benefitted from luck and incorrect calls by imperfect human umpires. Yes, I hate fun.

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  8. taprat says:

    In the final four innings, the 12 outs consisted of 8 Ks and 4 ground balls. Yeah, nice strategy, but more than anything, that’s Felix simply dominating. Probably not a top 10 game ever in terms of game score, but when you put that kind of dominance over 4 innings at the end of a perfect game, I’d say this is likely one of the best pitching performances ever. Probably top 5.

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  9. Sandy Kazmir says:

    Great breakdown, Woody. Enjoyed this almost as much as watching him work I just hope the Rays can adjust

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  10. Fantastic analysis. However, do you think you could work on your color schemes for your graphics? It is very difficult to distinguish the differences between some of the blues and purples. The dark black grounds aren’t doing any favors either.

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  11. David says:

    Do you think the Rays bounce back then and go back to a more patient approach v the Angels tonite?

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    • I think the Rays did the right thing; it just didn’t work Wednesday afternoon. They a guy like Felix (who can locate well) plays against their strengths, so they hatched a scheme to get him. I think that kind of team-wide gameplanning has helped the Rays dominate other pitchers at other times, so if they see it fits well against the Angels tonight, they will do it again.

      Also, it’s working noting, two of the Rays better hitters spent 90% of the game on the bench. (Jeff Keppinger and Desmond Jennings.)

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  12. Dcb says:

    I accidentally pushed a plus on the sprot dud, meant to negative, great visuals on interesting data, Thanks!

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  13. Warren says:

    Thanks Bradley, this is fantastic stuff! Us Mariner fans greatly appreciate the work you put in here. Keep up the good work!

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  14. Cus says:

    Do you agree with the pitch fx’s classification of Felix’s pitches? For the most part I think he is throwing the same breaking ball which may be the nastiest slurve ever, but tweaking velocityand release, and effective break as a result. I’d like to see a comparison of the range in velocity and movement for his slider, slurve, and curve, as I expect there’s a great deal of overlap.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      It’s definitely two different pitches. The Mariners made him shelve his slider early in his career, so when he came up, he was basically just FB/CB/CH. After he got a little older, they let him bust out the slider, and it was a distinctly different pitch than his CB. It’s thrown harder and dives away from right-handers, while the curve’s movement is basically just up and down.

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  15. Jesse says:

    Hey Bradley, great stuff, as usual. How were you able to graphs the pitchf/x plots in excel?

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  16. CarryOnMyHeywardSon says:

    This may be my favorite Fangraphs post ever. I don’t know that I’ve seen the cat-and-mouse game that pitchers and catchers play with hitters broken down so clearly before. I loved the visuals. I’d really like to see more breakdowns like this on Fangraphs in the future.

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  17. Tom says:

    I absolutely LOVE that we can sit here and say that the Rays had a good game plan for this game. Which I agree with – if Felix is going to throw strikes, why not try to smack him around? But IF they truly did have a cohesive game plan (and who knows if they did, but they seem like the type of team that might), it delights me to imagine that on a day when a team trotted out a good strategy to get to Felix, he blanked them front to back three times.

    I’m definitely going to this “Supreme Court” thing on Tuesday at Safeco.

    I love Felix Hernandez. I loved Junior as a kid, mostly because I am left-handed and played center, and because Junior was awesome, and wore my favorite shade of teal. But Felix…I don’t know. I love him so much. His swagger is most delightful. It seems to me to be purely motivated by competitiveness, and nothing else. Watching him kiss his wrists in celebration was one of the all-time high points in this Seattle sports fan’s dreary life of fandom.

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  18. Aussie Mariner says:

    Amazing article, great read. Thank you.

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  19. Shaun Catron says:

    I’m convinced Felix wouldn’t have thrown a perfect game if Montero caught that game.

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  20. Great post, thank for the interesting read.

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