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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