Felix Hernandez’s Velocity

Last week, the Seattle Mariners inked their ace, Felix Hernandez, to a $175 million extension for the next seven years. The dominating righty will be entering his age-27 season this year, meaning the contract will through his age-33 season. That is, unless, he injures his right elbow.

Embedded within Hernandez’s contract is a clause that gives the Mariners a club option for an eighth season — at a paltry $1 million — should Hernandez miss at least 130 consecutive days due to any kind of procedure to his right elbow. The Mariners negotiated this clause after some concern over what their doctors saw in the pitcher’s MRI.

Apparently, the club was reassured enough by their medical staff to sign the mammoth deal, even though the track record for long-term pitcher extensions isn’t the greatest. But how confident should the team be?

To begin with, Hernandez has been a starter in the league since 2005, and he moved into the rotation full time in 2006. Since 1920, Hernandez ranks 13th in innings pitched through the age-26 season. That list of 13 reads as you would expect — a group of historical hurlers — some of who continued their greatness after age 26 and others whose performances fell precipitously:

Name G GS IP ERA- FIP- K% BB% HR/9 BABIP LOB% WAR
Bert Blyleven 282 279 2143.2 76 72 19.9% 6.4% 0.62 0.279 76.10% 55.5
Don Drysdale 313 262 1945 81 84 18.4% 6.8% 0.81 0.274 75.50% 39.9
Hal Newhouser 300 235 1889 71 76 16.2% 10.7% 0.26 0.268 73.90% 42.8
Catfish Hunter 286 263 1881.2 97 102 16.3% 7.4% 0.94 0.246 75.50% 18.9
Fernando Valenzuela 244 234 1805.2 87 85 19.6% 8.9% 0.55 0.275 73.30% 36.0
Dwight Gooden 238 236 1713.2 82 72 22.1% 7.2% 0.46 0.286 74.10% 45.4
Joe Coleman 260 238 1686.2 98 94 17.2% 8.3% 0.79 0.272 74.50% 23.3
Robin Roberts 230 207 1669.1 76 83 11.8% 5.7% 0.68 0.264 75.50% 33.6
Vida Blue 235 224 1666 82 88 17.2% 7.9% 0.63 0.254 75.40% 29.9
Mel Harder 291 200 1662 79 85 7.6% 6.7% 0.34 0.291 66.40% 32.0
Pete Donohue 253 209 1634.1 89 87 6.8% 4.3% 0.20 0.289 65.60% 28.2
Milt Pappas 260 232 1623 90 96 14.1% 7.9% 0.79 0.256 74.80% 20.6
Felix Hernandez 238 238 1620.1 78 81 22.2% 7.2% 0.72 0.298 74.60% 38.3

Here’s how each of those pitchers finished their careers after that:

Name G GS IP ERA- FIP- K% BB% HR/9 BABIP LOB% WAR
Bert Blyleven 410 406 2826.1 92 88 17% 7% 0.90 0.285 73% 54.5
Don Drysdale 205 203 1487 86 94 17% 5% 0.64 0.269 76% 25.6
Hal Newhouser 187 138 1099 85 88 11% 8% 0.67 0.270 72% 19.9
Catfish Hunter 214 213 1567.2 91 106 12% 6% 1.02 0.239 75% 16.5
Fernando Valenzuela 209 190 1124.1 112 117 12% 10% 0.92 0.285 71% 5.7
Dwight Gooden 192 174 1087 102 103 16% 10% 1.02 0.291 71% 12.7
Joe Coleman 222 100 864.2 114 110 13% 11% 0.90 0.286 69% 5.5
Robin Roberts 446 402 3019.1 96 96 13% 4% 1.13 0.266 73% 43.1
Vida Blue 267 249 1677.1 101 104 14% 9% 0.79 0.271 73% 18.9
Mel Harder 268 232 1715.1 98 100 8% 8% 0.49 0.281 70% 22.6
Pete Donohue 91 61 478 125 103 5% 6% 0.60 0.328 63% 4.3
Milt Pappas 256 233 1554 95 96 12% 5% 0.90 0.281 74% 25.3

Now, obviously these pitchers performed worse and provided less value than before age 27, and that’s to be expected. Only Catfish Hunter managed to see his adjusted ERA improve. Additionally, these pitchers saw their K% decline by roughly 3%, on average, and their HR/9 increase by .25. Another, admittedly crude, way to look at the decline is to compare WAR/100 IP. Here, 11 out of 12 pitchers declined, with only Catfish Hunter being slightly better (+.05).

These pitchers also saw their innings decline significantly. Eight out of the 12 pitchers saw their innings drop, relative to before age 26. Five of those eight experienced innings-pitched declines of at least 37%.

The Mariners are essentially betting Hernandez can give them an additional 28 WAR through age 33. A quick glance at this list tells us that only two pitchers with a similar workload by age 26 have managed to produce that much value — with a few coming close.

This is a long way of saying that, when we think of aging curves for pitchers, age is only one factor. We also need to keep in mind the amount of wear and tear pitchers experience and how that can dramatically impact how much “greatness” a pitcher has left — even for a player as young as Felix. And, to that point, there are some warnings signs for Hernandez: The biggest has to do with that right elbow.

Before reports of the questionable MRI and contract clause, there was reason for concern. Like most pitchers, Felix has seen his fastball velocity decline throughout his young career. That isn’t troubling. What is, though, is the rate at which that velocity has fallen.

Since PITCHf/x came online in 2007, Hernandez has seen his fastball velocity drop between 4 mph and 5 mph, depending on what data you look at. This applies to both his four-seam fastball and his sinker (which, according to Brooks Baseball, he throws significantly more often):

 FelixVelo

We know from previous research on velocity and pitcher aging that, on average, starting pitchers lose about .55 mph from their four-seam fastball between ages 21 and 26. Hernandez’s velocity loss is 10 times that amount. We also know that experiencing a velocity loss of at least 1 mph from one season to the next increases a pitcher’s odds of injury, further velocity loss and/or ineffectiveness. Hernandez has had such a decline four out of the past five seasons. Additionally, his sinker’s velocity declined between 1 and 1.5 mph in 2012.

However, while Hernandez lost velocity last year his overall velocity trend was more normal than 2011. Pitchers generally gain velocity as the season goes on. In 2011, Hernandez was essentially throwing his sinker the hardest early in April, only to see his velocity steadily decline through September (93.5 vs. 92.9 mph). Last year, Hernandez was only hitting a shade under 92 mph in April compared to 93 mph in September, more what we would expect.

That being said, let’s assume Felix’s sinker velocity will average about 92 mph in 2013. But how does that compare to other pitchers between 27 and 33 years old? Well, since 2007, we really don’t have a good comparison.

Based on our PITCHf/x data, of the 12 pitchers who rely on their sinkers at least 20% of the time, none throw it as hard as Felix is likely to next year. The closest comparison might be Adam Wainwright, who has thrown his sinker 26.7% of the time and averaged 90.6 mph. Since 2007, Wainwright has averaged a 75 ERA- and 77 FIP-. If we remove the age restriction, we find guys like Chris Carpenter (30.5%, 91.9 mph), Hiroki Kuroda (27.5%, 91.8 mph) and Derek Holland (21.3%, 92.9 mph).

Is Felix’s velocity decline troubling? Yes, given what we know about aging and velocity trends. But since Felix does not rely on his four-seamer as his primary pitch, the decline need not be as concerning as if it was happening to a different pitcher. Moreover, that Felix’s in-season velocity trend once again resembled a normal trend is a good sign. This year could be a critical one to determining how this extension will play out. If Felix can hold the line on his sinker’s velocity, it bodes well for his continued dominance. (In fact, his Steamer projection — which takes into account velocity — sees Felix posting a 5.4 WAR season in 2013.) However, if his sinker again declines significantly, it could further signal that Felix is aging at an accelerated rate — or worse, that his elbow in fact is not sound.




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Bill works as a consultant by day. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, consults for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Tumblr or Twitter @BillPetti.


57 Responses to “Felix Hernandez’s Velocity”

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  1. Dongcopter Pilot says:

    So his velocity continued to fall last year, and he also pitched his first perfect game and was in the running for the AL Cy Young until his BABIP went through the stratosphere in the last month of so of the season…somehow this doesn’t worry me too much. He’s proven to me that the speed of his fastball is a very small portion of his overall effectiveness. If he stops being able to throw his curve and change effectively, then I’ll really worry.

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    • Marc says:

      The worry isn’t about how the declining velocity will affect his performance. The worry lies in a potential injury.

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      • Heather says:

        Yes and no. A drop from 96 to 92 is fine. Past a certain point, though, wouldn’t velocity be a concern? What if he drops from 92 to 86 over the next five years? Will it continue to have no effect on his pitching?

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  2. Ben Hall says:

    I wonder if the fact that Felix’s issue is with his elbow, and that Tommy John surgery is now often successful in allowing pitchers to return to something pretty close to peak form, means that the historical comparisons should be looked at with this in mind. That is, of the 12 pitchers with more innings pitched before age 27, only Valenzuela and Gooden pitched in the Tommy John surgery era. Perhaps the innings pitched decline after 26 would not have been so steep if Tommy John surgery was where it is now.

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    • Baltar says:

      If King Felix has to have Tommy John surgery, his contract will not have been worth it. The additional year for $1M doesn’t change that.

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    • Matt says:

      Besides Adam Wainwright, what starting pitcher in the last decade has undergone Tommy John Surgery…and returned to peak form?

      Josh Johnson? Francisco Liriano?

      Even Strasburg doesn’t look the same.

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  3. DKulich44 says:

    A lot of sources have said Felix’s velocity loss is intentional on his part. His pitches get more movement and he gets better control. If you look at his early career, where he was still throwing hard, his K rate and BB rate were worse than they are with his current velocity. If the velocity loss is intentional and it’s giving Felix an advantage, I don’t know how comparable pitchers that unintentionally lost velocity are.

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    • Heather says:

      Just curious-is this speculation by 3rd parties, or has Felix said this? Is he still capable of dialing it up to 98 if he wants to?

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      • DKulich44 says:

        Yeah good question. I believe Geoff Baker asked him last year, and he seemed to say it was intentional. So did a few of the coaches. The questions died down quickly once Felix got into the stretch of elite games in the middle of the season, and then topped it off with the perfect game. But I don’t really remember him topping 95-96 last season at all either.

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      • Balthazar says:

        I second the remarks mentioned above to Geoff Baker in which Felix said after he was ‘only’ hitting 92 earlin in 2012 and that was getting rmearks, he a) wasn’t concerned, and b) wasn’t _trying_ to throw as hard. Early career, Felix was in fact a real overthrower, with his sinker at 96-98 yeah but with poor command, which both upped his walk rate with the pitch, ran up his pitch counts, and worse sometimes had the ball come in thigh high and end up in the seats. So taking a few mph off the pitch is really in his best interests, and I seem to recall Felix getting that message in 2011 in terms of his pitching patterns, though I can’t recall an explicit source for that. Felix has clearly moved more to ‘pitching to contact’ at an elite level to get quicker ground ball outs off the sinker and his breaking stuff, and moved away from trying for Ks with hard stuff which added up to deep counts. Now when Felix gets a K, it’s more likely to be his change-up or curve which finishes off the batter, too, not trying to throw the ball by a guy sitting on a fastball.

        As far as, Can Felix still thow 98, probably not, but then he has 7.5 big league seasons behind him. However, he _can_ dial it up at times if he wants, and not just for one pitch. During his perfect game, Felix started off at 92-93 on the fastball which was his pattern for most of mid-season, specifically to get the ground ball outs quickly and stay out of deep counts. By the middle innings though, when it was clear he was working on a perfect game, Felix _raised_ his fastball velocity to 94-96 through the end of the game, not go give up a cheap groundball hit on a luck poke. So yes, Felix can dial it up at times if he wants to.

        That said, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Felix loses a year to his elbow going out. But at least we’re talking an elbow. With his decline in velocity, one would normally worry more about a shoulder issue, but that doesn’t seem on the horizon.

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    • commenter #1 says:

      i’m not sure that’s a more plausible explanation than “young pitcher with historical workload has lost velocity”

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  4. Alex says:

    It’s also worth considering the fact that the medical procedures (and I’m obviously referring primarily to TJS here) available to aging pitchers are much more advanced than they were when many of the pitchers on that list played. Pitchers have been coming back from UCL surgery in pretty good form lately as long as they’re not rushed. I’m not sure how many of the players on the list in this article were affected primarily by elbow issues, and obviously there are many other factors that could contribute to decline and/or a career-threatening injury. However, the elbow is what the Mariners were somewhat concerned about, and just from an elbow perspective alone, we simply don’t have a good comp for Felix due to pitching in a different medical era.

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  5. philosofool says:

    Since number of pitches thrown is a an injury predictor and probably a cause of injury as well, it might be time for the M’s to dial back Felix’s workload a little. 230IP and 3,600 pitches is probably just a bad idea. I know complete games are sexy, but so is a guy who manages never to miss a start.

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  6. dafuq says:

    I don’t know how this deal wasn’t easily the worst signing of the off season. It is incredibly bad.

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    • Zachary says:

      dafuq,

      I urge you to read this article on pitcher history injury.

      http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=19653

      I think you will find it enlightening and may convince you that a pitcher like Felix who has very little history of injury tends to fare very well in the health department going forward.

      Also, you must not be a Mariners fan, as Felix is worth about twice as much to the M’s as he would be to any other team (think Ichiro).

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    • HaxBot says:

      Because Dave Cameron is a Mariners fan.

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    • Balthazar says:

      In some respects I agree with you. Long-term pitcher contracts simply have been bad business for MLB. And this is both long-term, and extremely expensive as a contract, so in that respect it’s maximum risk-on. If there’s a pitcher in the game to give that contract to it’s Felix Hernandez, though. He’s been very durable. His velocity decline still leaves him at superior major league levels. His breaking stuff is elite to the point where he could continue to pitch effictively even if his fastball velocity is in the 80s; not at his present level, but still quite effective.

      I’m not wild about the length. But with the media money coming in, _this_ is what star deals are going to look like going forward. Thus, if you are going to sign Hernandez-Pujols-Trout-Kershaw, this is what you have to pony up. I’m not saying I like that, either, but that is the new ‘new reality’ it seems.

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      • Baltar says:

        “If there’s a pitcher in the game to give that contract to it’s Felix Hernandez, though.”
        Who forced the Mariners to pick a pitcher and give him that contract?
        Seattle has gambled it’s future on one player–and a pitcher at that.
        Imagine that Seattle had traded Hernandez instead of investing $175M. For example, they might have signed Bourn and Swisher for something like the contracts they got with Cleveland and still had $25M lefover in each of the last years of Hernandez’s contract, plus all the players they might have gotten in trade.
        This was a terrible, terrible signing that most writers and fans seem to feel a need to justify, no matter how silly the arguments.
        I am not a Mariners fan, but I guess I root for them a little more than most teams because I love the Pacific Northwest in general. It is sad that their baseball team has invested so unwisely.

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    • dafuq says:

      Zach,

      I’d like to imagine that we’re at a stage in biomedical advances where someone who has read the first chapter of their Stats 101 book and who can mash the regression button doesn’t make anything noteworthy. Also, the word “velocity” doesn’t even appear in that article, which is pretty absurd.

      Balth,

      I’m more opposed to these longterm extensions in the future where teams don’t get a large discount. This is one of the largest pitching contracts ever for a pitcher that is already locked up for 2 more years. Do we really think that the extra cost of 2 years in addition to the risk of a pitcher-style albatross (Carlos Lee’s contract was onerous, but Mike Hampton’s is just a world apart) expands this to what free market assumption in 2015? 200…. 225?

      On the durability issue. Aren’t all pitchers who sign massive 7 figure deals supremely durable? I’m just gonna skim Cots but Sabathia, Greinke, Hamels, Santana, Zito, Hampton… Literally, all of these guys are averaging 30+ starts in the 4-5 years (I think the lowest I saw was 28?) before their big payday. Santana has had a major shoulder surgery, lol Mike Hampton, and we’ll see how these others plays out.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Given the Mariners current competitive situation and Hernandez already being under contract (and given the fact he’s a pitcher), I agree.

      IMHO, Felix Hernandez’s mechanics are near ideal, and that he relies more on changing speeds (FB-CU) than many of the other dominant FB-SL type pitchers, that bodes well for him … as does his routine of throwing often and utilizing long toss. These are things that bode well for him.

      The last 4 years, he hasn;t just “pitched 200 IP/yr”, but 230+. Perhaps he and Verlander (and a small handful of others) are unique and withstand the workload and the avoidance of “slider-reliance” may be very beneficial.

      It’s unfortunate that King’s career is being wasted in Seattle, because he is worth watching whenever he pitches.

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  7. warpigs says:

    Thank you Bill, really interesting article…also appreciate you responding to my questions about this on twitter the other day. Great discussion, too.

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  8. David says:

    Any thoughts on either the efficacy or the moral/ethical issues involved in simply giving him elective Tommy John this year, when they aren’t competitive anyway, thus greatly improving their ROI in later years of the contract when they might be competitive? Two potential benefits to this are cleaning up the problems in the elbow and giving him a much stronger ligament, and also giving him a year of rest without consistent inflammation in his elbow and shoulder. Potential cons are that the surgery does more harm to his elbow than good, or that he loses his “feel” for his pitches.

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    • Bip says:

      And that it’s surely and extremely painful and uncomfortable process and there is no reason to go through it unless it’s pretty certain that it will inevitably happen anyway, and I don’t see how that is a certainly at all.

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    • Kraemer_51 says:

      This just seems like a nonsensical proposition. What sort of pitcher would do pre-emptive surgery because some front office pencilneck thinks they “can’t compete”.

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  9. Average_Casey says:

    There are a couple of issues with this article. The first is that Felix purposely throws softer than he can for better control and movement. Second, the list includes Doc Gooden, who had drug issues affecting his career. Third, there are a lot of pitchers on the list from a previous era that worked pitchers a lot harder with four man rotations and much higher pitch counts so the comparison isn’t a one for one comparison. Felix is a rare case because he is so young, has pitched so much at a young age, and pitches smarter than most young pitchers do. The hypothesis of this article may prove true but the supporting data isn’t useful for doing so.

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    • guest says:

      The problem is that everybody says that they are the *exception* to the rule. If I were a beating man, I would really bet against Hernandez providing 175 million in value over the contract, even when accounting for inflation and potential playoff appearances.

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  10. Rich says:

    Number of innings pitched through the age of 26 only considers major league games. It’s unsurprising that Felix is near the top of the list since he’s been consistently healthy and was one of the youngest pitchers to ever come into the league at the age of 19. In his first 4 years in the majors (including a half season of triple AAA in ’05) he averaged a reasonable 189 innings per season. I’d imagine you would find a number of other pitchers with similar mileage on their arms if you considered minor league innings pitched, but they don’t show up on these lists because they didn’t get called up until they were 22 or 23.

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  11. JKB says:

    Gut instinct says “Don Drysdale is a good comp” to me.

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  12. Elektrostal_Kid says:

    I’ve seen Hernandez throwing several times 96-97MPH fastballs last seasons when the situation was asking for it. It’s fairly possible he learned to not rely constantly on his velocity to be an effective pitcher.

    Iirc during a game at the Yankees stadium where he shut them out, their TV announcers said about Hernandez that the lost in velocity turned Hernandez into a Pitcher. Vocally, the emphasis was placed on the last word.

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  13. Bip says:

    The problem with pointing out that only two of those pitchers matched that WAR total is that most of them didn’t match Felix’s pre-26 WAR total either. The guys on that list are there because they threw a lot of innings, not because they were effective. It’s not surprising that some pitchers who are not as effective as Felix did not produce the value Felix is being paid to produce.

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  14. Virginia Yankee says:

    I had the (perhaps faulty) understanding that shoulder issues were most closely tied to velocity loss, rather than elbow problems.

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  15. kid says:

    I would never believe anything that a pitcher says about his own mechanics; after all, what are his intentions? Chances are that his intentions are to ensure job security and income, and no professional player is going to intentionally jeopardize that by acknowledging that his body is physically degrading before our very eyes (even if we *know* that it’s happening).

    In Felix’ case, luckily for him, there aren’t any signs of talent degradation as a result of the lower velocity. For most pitchers, losing a precious 2-3 MPH off of the fastball is extremely tough to overcome. But Felix has managed to maintain his SwStr% and actually *improve* his O-Swing. This very well might be a case where a pitcher is intentionally throwing more slowly than he knows he’s capable of. But I would imagine that this is extremely rare, save in the case of a flamethrowing reliever dialing down because he is moving to a rotation role or something.

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  16. KGE1141 says:

    Is the that he throws his three other plus pitches at a well above average velocity at all relevant here?

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      So basically he “learned how to pitch”, how FG says they wish TL55 would do.

      I don’t doubt that King’s mph has decreased for natural reasons.

      What would be interesting is to collect a group of “former fireballers” that became equally effective pitchers using a different strategy. Maybe Clemens falls into this group, Tanana, etc. Jamie Moyer has lost quite a bit of velocity. *grin*

      The BIG difference with Felix as compared to say some others is that he is not VELOCITY-DEPENDENT.

      Dwight Gooden, for example, was primarily FB-CB, so a decrease in velocity takes away his main weapon.

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  17. Drew says:

    Gooden was worn out and had issues with his velocity / effectiveness well before he had “drug issues”.

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    • Jeff K says:

      Gooden tested positive for cocaine in 1987, when he was only 22 years old. His drug problem was around nearly his entire career. After posting a ~4 WAR in 1993, he was was suspended for nearly all of 1994 and all of 1995 for multiple positive cocaine tests. He clearly would have had a better career if not for drugs.

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  18. tommydevils says:

    Great Article Bill. While the decline in velocity is concerning, his ability to locate pitches has risen dramatically since 2007. While heat maps can’t tell the whole story (http://www.fangraphs.com/heatmap.aspx?playerid=4772&position=P&pitch=FA), there is clearly some sort of inverse relationship between his velocity and location of pitches . This makes me believe that maybe the decline in velocity is less a result of elbow worries and more an effort to pitch efficiently. Last season, Felix walked fewer batters per 9 innings and struck out more batters per 9 than he did during any other season in his career. I just don’t see any reason YET to start believing that his decline in velocity will negatively impact his numbers.

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  19. Misfit says:

    Being on the east coast, I don’t get to see a lot of Hernandez but I had the impression that he was relying on his change-up more and more as the years go by. Taking a quick look at his profile seems to confirm this. His change-up velocity also increased a few years back to settle at the current 89mph average he displays. Did he change his grip around 2008? It’s possible that he’s slowed his arm down on his fastball to better match the arm speed he displays on his change-up in an attempt to make the pitch more effective. Or he’s just losing velocity. As many have already pointed out, the best way to tell would be to see if he reaches back for a little extra at any point during a game.

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  20. CMC_Stags says:

    I’d be curious to see Felix’s weight charted on the same graph as his FB velocity. He’s been working at slimming down a bit the last few years and I wonder if the lost momentum is impacting lost velocity. The flip side is that a lighter Felix should be putting less stress on his joints.

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    • CMC_Stags says:

      Also, if you click the velocity charts philosofool helpfully linked above, the major drop in Felix’s velocity in 2012 came in the first half of the season. There was a demonstrated issue with his wind-up mechanics at the beginning of last season that once solved, restored both control and velocity.

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  21. Antonio bananas says:

    What’s the normal age related velocity decline and is this out of the realm of normal based on his innings?

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  22. Dt says:

    For the people doubting that Felix purposefully brought down his velocity, remember that he was learning from Jamie Moyer when he came into the league and Jamie stopped being able to throw 90 before Felix was born.

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    • Heather says:

      Not sure what your point is. Jamie Moyer is the exception, not the rule.

      Most guys with velocity in the mid 80s simply aren’t very good major league pitchers (if they’re in MLB at all).

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  23. Eric Cioe says:

    To me, it’s a real simple question: if you put a gun to Felix’s head, could he throw 98? Could Lincecum?

    I’m a big Verlander fan, but to me that’s one of the special things about him. He and Felix are of very similar quality but people always mention the age difference. Okay, fine. But which one has most of his former fastball velocity?

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  24. njd.aitken says:

    Wait throw slower as they age? Consider my mind blown.

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