He’s 27, so maybe it’s not surprising. But over 1800 innings into his career, Felix Hernandez isn’t really showing any signs of decline yet. Well, if you ignore one stat.
Far from declining, Felix is actually showing peak-level performance in many facets of the game. He had a career-best value in strikeout rate (9.51 per nine, 26.3%), walk rate (2.03 per nine, 5.6%), swinging strike rate (10.7%), FIP (2.61) and xFIP (2.66) in 2013. A few other important numbers were within a percentage point of career norms: ground-ball rate (51.4%, 54% career), first-strike rate (62%, 60.8% career), o-swing percentage (33.6%, 31.5% career). These things cover most facets of the game from a pitching perspective — he’s really good at everything and not getting worse at anything.
Well, not quite everything.
Felix Hernandez debuted with a 96 mph fastball, and last year he averaged around 92 on the same heater. We know this sort of thing happens, and we know that velocity dropoff is more of a problem for relievers than starters. We theorize that this is because starters have more pitches and know how to change up their pitching mix to offset the reduced effectiveness of their slower fastball. And that’s certainly what the King has done. Check out his pitching mix over different parts of his career.
It’s not super stark, but it does seem like Hernandez is using his fastball less and his changeup more as he ages. Those fastball numbers are sinkers plus four-seamers, but Hernandez is now using his sinker twice as much as his four-seamer.
With a 25% whiff rate, his changeup ranks among the elite in getting swings and misses. Cole Hamels (27%), James Shields (20%), Hyu-Jin Ryu (17%) and Kris Medlen (30%) are the names on the changeup pitch-type value board around him, and they all use their changeup fairly often. Since his changeup reigns supreme, the strategy is working.
There’s more of a reason to like the change in his mix: the changeup might be the healthiest pitch. recent work by Jeff Zimmerman, summarized here, suggests that Felix Hernandez is in the best possible spot for future health:
|Type of Pitcher||DL %|
|Plus Control (>51% Zone)||35%|
All pitchers eventually succumb to injury, but Hernandez has a lot of factors in his favor. He’s a strike-thrower, which probably suggests that he has good, repeatable mechanics. His primary non-fastball weapon is a changeup. He’s been durable in his career. He didn’t go on the disabled list last year and actually hasn’t been on the DL since 2008. For an ankle injury. Since past DL time is the best predictor of future DL time, he really does check all the health boxes.
Felix Hernandez has survived the fences coming in. He’s survived velocity loss. Maybe he’ll just keep doing this whole career. The numbers say that he’ll eventually run into problems at some point, but he’s in his late twenties, not late thirties.
There’s really no reason to worry… yet.
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