For all of the natural ebbs and flows of individual player performance from year to year, the game’s ruling class – the elite among the elite, the upper crust – is a fairly closed society that remains fairly static from year to year. Any given year might have its Yasiel Puig joining that group, or its Albert Pujols conceding his seat, but the core membership is fairly predictable. What might happen in any given season, however, is one of these elite players taking a temporary step up in class, reaching an even more rarified air than ever before. This week, let’s take a deeper look at the 2014 performance of some of the game’s elite, and determine whether they in fact have taken things to the next level. Today, Felix Hernandez.
Since his arrival at the major league level in 2005 at age 19, Felix Hernandez’ greatness has never been in question. The raw traditional numbers – 118-88, 3.15 – are good enough in their own right, but they do him absolutely no justice. Let’s break a starting pitcher’s job description to a few broad departments. Endurance? Top of the scale, as Hernandez has exceeded 190 innings in all eight full seasons of his career, and has topped 200 in each of the last six, leading the AL once in 2009, in the midst of a four-year stretch in which he averaged 238.5 innings per season. Bat-missing ability? Again, very near the top of the scale, whiffing 1815 batters in 1931 innings for his career, exceeding a batter per inning in 2013-14 after coming close in every previous season. Control? Again, very near the top of the scale, as he has walked only 545 batters over those 1931 innings, with his walk rate steadily trending downward after it peaked in 2008 when he walked 80 batters.
How about contact management? This is an area in which The King has not always excelled. He reached his contact management apex in 2009-10, when he posted the two highest full-season grounder rates and two lowest full-season line drive rates of his career. Since 2010, those two rates have steadily moved in the wrong direction, and Felix’ contact management ability has steadily slipped into the average range. In 2013, it was almost exactly average, as he allowed a .332 AVG-.489 SLG on balls in play, unadjusted for context, compared to an MLB average of .323-.505.
This is not unusual, nor is it a particularly big deal for an elite K/BB guy like Felix. Over the years, pitchers such as Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, et al have fit a similar profile, allowing near league average production on balls in play. The one clear, stark, obvious recent exception has been Clayton Kershaw. In his five full seasons as a starter, Kershaw’s WORST production allowed on balls in play has been .292 AVG-.436 SLG in 2010, and in 2013, he was the second best contact manager in the NL before adjustment for context, allowing only .264-.375 on all BIP, and was by far the best after adjustment for context. Kershaw’s high ground ball rates and his ability to limit batted-ball authority in the air has separated him from the other contemporary pitching greats over the past few seasons.
Let’s take a closer look at Hernandez’ 2013 and 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to see what, if any, changes have taken place, and see whether Hernandez has taken things to another level in 2014. First, the frequency information:
|FREQ – 2013|
|FREQ – 2014|
The difference between Hernandez’ K and BB rates is basically unparalleled among modern hurlers, and continues to form the cornerstone of his overall game. Even if Hernandez was a below average contact manager, he would be still be an above average pitcher because of it. However, looking at the remainder of his 2013-14 frequency data reveals a trend that may be making Hernandez more dangerous than ever. First, let’s get the couple of small negatives out of the way – Hernandez’ popup rate is fairly miniscule at this point at 4.0%, for a percentile rank of 2, and his line drive rate continues to be quite high at 22.5%, for a percentile rank of 93. The low popup rate goes with the territory for the extreme ground ball pitcher that Felix is again becoming, and the high liner rate is ripe for at least some regression in the right direction.
Take a look at that ground ball rate, however. Felix is getting toward where he was in 2009-10, his best contact management seasons. It is quite unusual to have single-digit percentile ranks in both the popup and fly ball categories – only four qualifying MLB pitchers pulled it off in 2013, Justin Masterson, Rick Porcello, A.J. Burnett and somehow, and barely, Joe Saunders. None of those guys miss nearly as many bats or walk nearly as few hitters as Hernandez, and as we shall shortly see, none can limit contact authority in the same manner as the King.
Let’s take a look at the production by BIP type allowed by Hernandez in 2013 and 2014, both before and after adjustment for context:
|PROD – 2013|
|F.Hernandez||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|PROD – 2014|
|F.Hernandez||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
The actual production allowed by Hernandez on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. In the three right-most columns, his actual ERA, his calculated component ERA based on actual production allowed, and his “tru” ERA, which is adjusted for context, are all presented. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.
The 2013 version of Felix Hernandez allowed almost exactly league average batted ball authority in each of the three major BIP types, as he was helped by the Safeco Field effect on fly balls and was hurt by both poor outfield defense and general luck on line drives. Overall, it was his superior K and BB rates that carried him to his nearly identical actual, calculated and “tru” ERA’s of 3.04, 3.04 and 2.98 respectively, and an overall ADJ PRD figure of 77.
It is a very, very different story thus far in 2014. The massive difference in production allowed on all BIP types, both before and after adjustment for context, jumps off of the page. He has allowed only three homers this season, and just a meager .230 AVG-.459 SLG on all fly balls. This has been much more than Safeco at work, however, as his REL PRD figure of 49 is adjusted only slightly higher to 61 based on his hard/soft fly ball rates. That 61 mark is way down in Kershaw territory – the Dodger lefty posted an exceptional 57 mark in 2013. Hernandez has been quite fortunate on line drives so far this season, allowing just a .565-.710 line compared to a .666-.886 MLB average, but adjustment for context only moves his 69 REL PRD up to an 88 ADJ PRD. Lastly, his hard/soft ground ball rates have also been exceptional this season, adjusting his 111 REL PRD down to a 79 ADJ PRD.
Overall, he has allowed just a .303 AVG-.408 SLG on all BIP types, for a REL PRD of 76 that is almost exactly in line with his 77 ADJ PRD. This season, Hernandez has been an elite contact manager, on top of being an elite K/BB guy. The ramping up of his grounder rate combined with much improved limitation of authority on all BIP types has, scarily enough, made King Felix even better than he already was.
By digging a bit into his pitch-by-pitch data we can gain some clues as to the origin of this improvement. His swing-and-miss rate is sharply up this season to a career-best 12.8%, well above his previous best of 10.7%. It isn’t just one single pitch that Felix is relying upon, either – he has four, count ‘em, four pitches with double-digit swing-and-miss rates. He’s making hitters miss with his changeup (18.9%), slider (17.7%), curveball (11.7%) and sinker (11.1%). Though it’s the lowest number of the four, that sinker whiff rate is remarkable, as most pitchers’ sinkers are weak-contact pitches.
After a few seasons of gradual decline, Felix has seen his average fastball velocity bounce back a bit this season, from 91.3 MPH in 2013 to 92.2 MPH in 2014. Repertoire-wise, he is using his changeup more than ever, throwing it 26.4% of the time this season. Among his very deep and strong arsenal of pitches, his changeup, sinker and curveball have been his three most effective this season. The latter two are generating significant weak ground ball contact on top of the bats they have missed. He has allowed a significant amount of damage on his slider this season, offsetting some of the swings and misses it has induced.
For his career, Felix has yielded a large, normal platoon split (vs. L= .250-.312-.374, vs. R= .233-.283-.328), but it has been much tighter this season (vs. L= .226-.265-.294, vs. R= .211-.251-.298), largely due to the continued emergence of his changeup as a wipeout pitch.
The standard evolution of a pitcher goes something like this. He is at the apex of his physical powers very early in his career, and his K and BB rates are at their highest at that time. Contact management is an afterthought at this point. Over time, the K and BB rates come down, and pitchers learn to manage contact at least somewhat better. At some point in that middle stage of his career, a pitcher peaks, as the merging of these combined abilities reaches a high point.
Felix is at the high point of a career that is a high point in and of itself. About the only thing he can do to get better is reduce his line drive rate. His durability and endurance is as good as it gets. The spread between his K and BB rates is as good as it gets. He misses a high percentage of bats with about as many pitches as one can. He gets about as many grounders as you can get. And now, better than he has at any point in his career, he is managing contact about as well as one can. Safeco sure doesn’t hurt – it gives him a safety net should the quality of contact he allows backslide a bit – but just take a look at the narrow band circling his actual, calculated and “tru” ERAs – this guy is basically unaffected by context. He’s that good. Plus, on top of all of these “tangibles”, his intangibles might be even better. Savor watching him, as it isn’t every day that you get to watch one of the very best, at his absolute best.
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