No Signs of Decline from Felix Hernandez… Yet

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.

felixvelo

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.

Years FB Velocity FB% SL% CB% CH%
05-06 95.4 58% 6% 21% 15%
07-09 95.7 62% 15% 11% 13%
10-12 93.8 58% 11% 14% 17%
13 92.5 54% 11% 13% 22%

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 %
All Starters 39%
Slider-Heavy (>30%) 46%
Curve-Heavy (>25%) 51%
Change-Heavy (>20%) 34%
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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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


11 Responses to “No Signs of Decline from Felix Hernandez… Yet”

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  1. Holy Shit says:

    Felix already has 41 fwar!

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  2. Dave says:

    Since Hernandez is now throwing twice as many 4-seamers as 2-seamers, and 4-seamers generally have a lower velocity than 2-seamers isn’t it fair to add that the drop in velocity may be partly because of this, and not necessarily as worrisome?

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    • RT says:

      Other way around, 4-seamers are typically higher velo than 2-seamers.

      As a Mariners fan and someone who has seen Felix throw extensively, its worth noting that his “changeup” is something of a signature pitch. Its separation is no where near the 8-12 MPH you typically look for in a changeup, but actually closer to only a 5 MPH difference.

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      • Alan says:

        Yes, but he messed up the frequency, too, so the question is still valid. Is the drop in velocity primarily due to fb mix or a real drop? If he’s throwing more sinkers, that could account for a decent chunk.

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      • RT says:

        I think that’s a very valid point. He hardly throws anything that’s straight now which I think is almost entirely to blame for his velocity drop. I’ve seen numerous articles on this here on Fangraphs and on other sites and they somehow seem to always fail to mention this.

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      • Eno Sarris says:
        FanGraphs Supporting Member

        I combined the numbers in order to go back through his whole career. 4-seam and 2-seam classifications have changed over the years. Yes, he’s throwing more two-seamers, but no, he’s lost velocity beyond that. This year, his four-seam was 92.7, his two-seam was 92.3 according to Brooks. In 2011, his four-seam was 94.1 and his two-seam was 93.8.

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  3. zach says:

    The DL reference is misleading — if not for september, he’d have surely hit the dl last year. Thats just nitpicking though.

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  4. Edmund Burke says:

    Is it possible that Felix has already started to move away from his “best” fastball intentionally? I suppose this is really more of a scouting question.

    There are plenty of examples of elite pitchers who kept their “best” fastball late into their careers, but intentionally chose to move away from relying on them. The net effect would still be lower velocity on average, but in a high pressure situation, Felix would still be able to harness his (very near) best cheese.

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  5. Greeff says:

    Also a Mariners fan here!

    I think Felix has “learned” to pitch over his years in MLB and maybe chooses to throw slower in favor of more movement on his pitches. and looking at the numbers this works well for him.

    Remember, towards the end of his perfect game, amped up on adrenaline he was throwing 96-97 mph.

    Jeff Sullivan said:
    http://www.lookoutlanding.com/2012/8/16/3247373/felix-hernandez-perfect-game-fastball

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