King Felix isn’t showing improvement

Felix Hernandez’s ERA has improved in every season he’s been in the majors. But don’t let that fool you: he’s not showing signs of improvement and 2008 was perhaps his worst season yet.

Hernandez had a 175/80 K/BB ratio in 200 innings this year, while allowing 17 homers and posting a 3.45 ERA. However, his walk rate was higher than it has ever been before: he allowed 3.59 walks per nine innings, well higher than the 2.51 and 2.83 rates he posted over the last two years. Furthermore, while his strikeout rate remains high, it doesn’t seem to be improving: he struck out 7.85 batters per nine this year, while striking out 7.80 last year and 8.29 in 2006.

Additionally, Hernandez induced fewer swinging strikes than he had in the past. In 2006, batters swung and missed at 8.6% of his pitches, after swinging and missing at 9.7%, 9.0%, and 10.0% over his first three years. This isn’t a significant decrease, but it’s certainly worth noting, especially considering the accompanying rise in his walk rate. He also received fewer called strikes than in the past: 17.1% of his pitches were taken for strikes this year, as compared to 18.9%, 18.3%, and 19.6% over the past three years. This could further attest to diminished control.

Also, Hernandez’s homer rate had been abnormally high over the previous two seasons: in 2006 and 2007, 16.4% and 15.0% of his fly balls had become homers. In 2008 this rate regressed to the mean, and only 9.9% of his fly balls became homers. However, another rather disturbing thing happened: Felix stopped inducing nearly as many ground balls as he had in the past.

In 2008, Hernandez induced grounders on 52.1% of the balls in play against him; in 2007, that was 60.8%, in 2006 it was 57.7%, and in 84 innings in 2005 it was a whopping 67.1%. While 52.1% is still a lot of ground balls, one of Felix’s biggest strengths in the past was his ability to induce as many grounders as, well…just about anyone. Thus, while his HR/FB rate fell almost 7% from 2007, he only allowed three fewer homers in 2008 than he did in 2007 (granted, he also pitched 10 more inning in 2008), thanks to the fact that he allowed 39 more fly balls in 2008.

Finally, it’s well worth noting that while Hernandez’s velocity remained constant, his pitch selection was different in 2008 than in the past. After throwing fastballs 57% of the time in 2006 and 2007, he threw a fastball 65.9% of the time this year. However, after using his slider 20.7% of the time in 2007, he used it only 12.3% of the time in 2008. He also used his curveball less frequently than in the past, throwing it only 8.5% of the time, as compared to 12.4% in 2007 and 20.6% in 2006.

There’s no denying that Felix Hernandez has absolutely filthy stuff. Furthermore, he’s still only 22 years old, and thus has plenty of time to improve. And when that improvement does come, it’s quite possible that it will happen fairly quickly: unlike hitters, pitchers tend to reach new levels rather suddenly, rather than gradually. A good example of this is CC Sabathia – if you look at his stats, you’ll see that he was incredibly consistent from age 20 through age 24, before kicking it into a whole new gear.

Hernandez may find that new level next year, or in five years, and there’s a chance that he may never find that new level at all. However, Hernandez does not appear to be improving so far. In 2008, his walk rate was up, his ground ball rate was down, and he induced fewer swinging strikes. This does not mean that he won’t “figure it out” next season, but it does mean that unless he shows significant improvement next season, his ERA is very likely to rise. Don’t be fooled by the apparent “progress” he’s made by lowering his ERA for three straight seasons: 2008 was perhaps Hernandez’s worst season in the majors. He has ample upside, but be wary of him in 2009.




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9 Responses to “King Felix isn’t showing improvement”

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  1. philosofool says:

    I’m optimistic about King Felix in 2009. If you take a look at his pitch selection stats for 2006 and 2007, you’ll see those seasons are basically the same as far as his ratio of fastballs to off-speed stuff. Then in 2009, there’s a 9% jump and he goes from throwing 58% fastballs to 65% fastballs. Felix off-speed stuff is plus-plus. (The increase in fastball frequency seems to have taken a little heat off the offerings too…)

    So why is this cause for optimism? Because the Mariners jettisoned their leadership both on the field and in the front office. A look at Felix’s numbers from 2006 to 2008 reveals that the changes we bad. But I think there’s a very good hypothesis lingering in those numbers that good management and coaching *which Felix didn’t have last year* can address easily. Have Felix adjust his offerings to be more like 2007 and you he should return to form, especially regarding ground balls. Then it’s just a matter of learning with age: the list of pitchers that performed as well as Felix during at the same age is basically a list of future HoFers.

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  2. Peter says:

    Thanks for the comment. I have two questions for you:

    1) What makes you think that Felix will return to his 2007 repertoire?

    2) What makes you think that Felix had bad coaching/instruction last year? Yes, Bavasi was an inept general manager, but he was particularly bad at making trades and signing players – in other words, roster management. I’m not saying Felix DIDN’T receive poor coaching, but I don’t know as there’s any evidence that he DID receive poor coaching, either.

    Also, I totally agree with you that Felix’s future is extremely bright. The point I was trying to make in this article is that, so far, Felix hasn’t shown any improvement, and has actually gotten a little worse, suggesting that his breakout is somewhat unlikely to occur in 2009.

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  3. BrettJMiller says:

    Peter:

    1. His repetoire isn’t really worse, it was just utilized poorly.

    2. Mel Stottlemyre’s mantra was “Establish the fastball” from day one. I talked to him a bit before last season at a SABR event. He said Felix didn’t use his fastball enough. I asked if he meant situationally, and he just said in general, he wanted Felix to throw more Fastballs. Historically, Felix has had less command of his fastball than any of his other pitches–or so it seems, I’m not sure how to find a called strike % for each individual pitch. But regardless, his fastball is erratic and flat, and when he throws it 65% of the time, people sit on it. Stottlemyre is an idiot…Raffy Chaves, the old Mariner pitching coach told Felix to mix it up…he even showed Felix Dave Cameron’s “open letter”, and after that Felix had great success mixing his pitches. Then Stottlemyre came in and basically threw that philosophy out the window and absoutely no one was shocked to see Felix get worse.

    2009 will be better for Felix because he won’t have a “good ol’ boy” pitching coach telling him that the only way to pitch is to throw absurd amounts of fastballs. He may not break out, but he’s not going to struggle as bad as in 2008. When he stops throwing the fastball so god damn much, the walks should come down too.

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  4. MattLee says:

    I’m looking at the stats and i dont really see where the not improving is. 2006 was when no one was familiar with him yet. you throw away 2006 and you will see an improvement between 2007 and 2008 minus wins.

    2007
    ERA 3.92
    IP 190.1
    K/9 7.80

    2008
    ERA 3.45
    IP 200.2
    K/9 7.85

    If thats not improving then tell me what is? wins he can’t help that depends on the run support of his team.

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  5. Matt says:

    Sorry, but I didn’t see any improvement and even some regression to be honest.

    2007 2008
    2.51 BB/9 3.59
    3.11 K/9 2.19
    60.8 GB% 52.0
    3.75 FIP 3.80
    1.37 WHIP 1.38

    How is that improvement, especially for someone as young as Felix and presumably on a faster learning curve year to year?

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  6. Simon B. says:

    I disagree with the common assertion that Felix needs to throw his fastball less and his offspeed stuff more. The USS Mariner has been driving this bandwagon, and I think they are completely off. The “hypothesis” first arose in 2007 when Felix had a 55% FB rate. Not high at all. Seriously, charting the first ten pitches of a few select games as they did isn’t likely to come up with anything material.

    I think the reason this idea took off was the perception among fans that Felix had an unbelievable, amazing offspeed repertoire—which can sometimes be sort-of true, but I’ve found it to be very inconsistent. His fastball is his best pitch, and it isn’t particularly close. This past year, he’s had a 65% FB rate, which is on the highish side, but not particularly, and is actually low when you compare to other guys who have sinkers of the same caliber.

    A possible problem for his “troubles” is that he tries to be a jack-of-all-trades. I wonder if he focused on one or two offspeed pitches, instead of throwing even amounts of sliders, curveballs, and changeups, he might gain more consistency with them.

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  7. Peter says:

    I do think that new regime in Seattle is likely to help Felix improve. And I think that once Felix does improve, it will happen right away, rather than gradually. The stuff is clearly there, it’s a question of pitch choice and harnessing it.

    It will be interesting to see what the new regime thinks of the idea that Felix needs to throw his off-speed stuff more. I don’t know him or his stuff well enough to really comment on it – all I know is that all of pitches are supposedly above-average.

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  8. Micah says:

    Felix threw too many four seamers last year. His 2 seamer is great, and his curve and slider are his best pitches. If you look at the percentage of his pitches that were curveballs along with the up in fastball % you know instantly why his gb% went down. Don’t worry it will go back up. I don’t think this one year is indicative of Felix’s development. Considering that he wasn’t working to his strengths–cough* curveball–he did very well. He should have had a winning record, but his team sucked balls.

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  9. Simon B. says:

    “Felix threw too many four seamers last year.”

    He threw it only 12% of the time in 2008.

    Could everyone just put this theory to rest already? It makes no sense

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