The Curious Case of Felix Hernandez

During last night’s Fantasy Baseball Roundtable radio show that I participate in every Wednesday night, I was asked in one of our regular segments whether Felix Hernandez would remain an effective pitcher after the age of 30. On the surface, this seemed like a pretty absurd question. Of course he would! What would make anyone think he wouldn’t? This article won’t actually answer that question. However, when quickly scanning the King’s statistical record in order to determine my response, there appeared to be some crazy things going on. I would like to share those with you.

First, the calculus behind the question could be summed up by the following graph:

Felix Velocity

This probably isn’t all that surprising. Since the beginning of last season, we’ve published several articles about Felix’s missing velocity heading into this season. Well, it has declined even further in 2013, albeit by a minor degree. As a rookie, he was averaging nearly 96 mph with his fastball. He is now averaging just under 92 mph for the season. Normally, this is ominous for a young pitcher’s future. But curiously, check this out:

Felix Velocity vs K

It doesn’t line up perfectly, but the trend has been that as Felix has lost velocity, he has increased his strikeout percentage. That’s just not normal. It’s what makes him King I guess. His SwStk% also sits at a career high, despite the career worst fastball velocity. Just another oddity to add to the list.

But perhaps the strangest thing I came across is the separation between his fastball and “change-up”. You will see why I decided to wrap quotes around that so-called offspeed pitch. Have a look see at this chart:

Felix FBv vs CHv

Hmmm. So as Hernandez has lost velocity on his fastball, he has thrown his change-up harder? When he debuted, he featured a typical separation between the pitches of 10-11 mph. It’s difficult to tell from the chart, but according to both the BIS and PITCHf/x data, Hernandez is only throwing his change-up about three miles per hour slower than his fastball now. How exactly is that working as a change-up? I might question the pitch classification algorithm, but can both data sources be mistaken? The only thing I can think of is that his sinker is getting confused with his real change-up and inflating the average velocity reading. This could be some of the explanation, as his change-up velocity spiked in 2010, the same year in which half of his previous fastballs suddenly became sinkers and his change-up percentage tripled.

If you peek at the PITCHf/x overview, you’ll notice that his change-up’s max velocity this season is at 91.7. Umm, that’s not a change-up. So it seems pretty certain now that there are pitch classification errors going on here.

One more awe inspiring stat: his fastball, once again at its lowest average velocity in his career, has induced the highest SwStk% of his career. His previous career high was in 2007 at 7.4%. This year it has come in at 10.2%, quite a significant increase. It’s a pretty big testament to Felix that he has been able to adjust and remain as effective as he has (even more so even, as his SIERA is at the lowest of his career), in spite of a fastball that has lost steam.

So is Felix Hernandez going to remain successful after the age of 30? It’s hard to bet on a 27-year-old who has consistently lost fastball velocity, but then again, it’s hard to bet against someone who shows absolutely no signs of the decline actually affecting his performance.

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Mike Podhorzer produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. He also sells beautiful photos through his online gallery, Pod's Pics. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

15 Responses to “The Curious Case of Felix Hernandez”

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  1. Theonewhoknocks says:

    You come at the king you best not miss

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    • Oh, Beepy says:

      If there is critical mass on making this reference to Felix Hernandez, I can’t say that we’re anywhere within spitting distance of that mark.

      Come at the King.

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  2. Ben says:

    Sounds like faulty data.

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  3. Mister says:

    Is there any chance that the velocity decline is part of an intentional growth from being a thrower to being a pitcher? I.e. Felix is sacrificing velocity in order to get pinpoint control?

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    • I would believe if it he debuted having poor control. He didn’t. He always had good control, so I highly doubt it was intentional.

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      • Bodhizefa says:

        His control was pretty good at the outset, but his command was middling at best. I think you’re ignoring the factors outlined in the many comments concerning his pitching vs. throwing in order to fit your narrative, and I think it’s pretty obvious that Hernandez is a better pitcher now than he’s ever been.

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      • There was no narrative. I was just pointing out that his velocity has declined while his strikeout percentage has risen. You don’t normally see that.

        And sure, his SIERA is at a career best this year, but it’s been identical the past 3 while his velocity declined. Not sure how that supports him transitioning from a thrower to a pitcher. I also don’t get how anyone could have ever labeled him a thrower to begin with when he has only once posted a walk percentage above 7.4%.

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  4. BlackSabbathia says:

    The movement and velocity on Felix changeup reminds me of a traditional split-fingered fastball, big movement despite being just few mph less than the heater. I don’t think he’s throwing a splitter, though.

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    • Michael Barr says:

      This, exactly. You have to watch him pitch to understand why he’s so difficult to hit. The Maddux reference below is a good one too.

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  5. RT says:

    I find it baffling how movement is hardly discussed in many of the articles written on Felix and his velocity. When he came into the league, he ran straight 4 seamers to try and throw it by guys more often. He almost NEVER throws a 4-seamer now, and everything is moving a pretty silly amount. Its really quite simple and not as complicated as people have made it out to be: He now sacrifices velocity for movement. The kid that came up with some of the best raw stuff is just getting better at actually pitching.

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    • Scott says:

      It’s a possibility, but it’s not that simple. If velocity and movement were that intimately related, Verlander’s fastball wouldn’t move, and Tommy Milone’s would be unhittable. And there isn’t much of a mechanism either.

      I agree his pitches seem to move more than they did when he was young. It would be interesting to see a PitchFX breakdown of that data. But it’s hard to say that it’s a conscious choice.

      Another thing to note is the difference between his peak velocity and his average velocity. At this risk of drawing the ire of every Jack Morris-hater out there, it seems like Felix has the ability to dial up his heater in the biggest moments. Because the sink gets the job done most of the time, he keeps that arrow in the quiver until it’s needed.

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  6. Cam says:

    have you not seen the greg maddux movement on his slooooow heater

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  7. Corey says:

    This isn’t a new observation, in fact its been something discussed thoroughly, and yet you fail to cite ANY other article addressing this issue. While I think there is a little bit of pitch classification error happening, its due to how close together his fastball and change up are. Some of the fastball decline since he debuted is I’m sure physical and normal, but a lot of the recent change, settling in around 91 mph on average is intentional. Felix Hernandez has decided to sacrifice velocity for command and ball movement, he’s a pitcher not a thrower. That’s his changeup coming in at 89ish mph, and tells us he’s maintaining the arm speed on that pitch he used to maintain, he’s just not using it for his fastball. Felix is using his changeup less like a changeup than like a screwball, he’s fooling people with the movement of the pitch rather than with the speed change.

    Finally, to nitpick, you guys have got to stop entitling articles “the curious case of (insert player’s name)” it was funny the first time, now its just getting annoying, you’re going to cover every player in baseball with a “curious case of” headline at this rate.

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  8. torso says:

    His four seam fastball is very hittable recently. The swing & miss ratio in the strikezone is quite low, indicating he is quite hittable in the strikezone, unlike Scherzer, Harvey and Yu Darvish. He needed to add some mix to his fastball. So physically, he is in obvious decline. The argument that he sacrifices velocity for command is pretty unwarranted, for he sacrifices velocity of all of his pitches equally and every year. It is just a physical decline, but the baseball is not about physical strength. Look at the 40-year-old-once-retired veteran who throws for Oakland. He doesn’t throw any harder than he did 10 years ago, but his stats is still among the top in AL. Mark Alan Buehrle, a 84mph left handed veteran, has been safely throwing 200+ innings 12 years in a row. Kuroda has been pitching better than ever at the age of 39. So for a baseball player, unlike a splinter, there are a lot of ways to compensate for his physical decline.

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  9. Gregory says:

    would a better metric than K% be K% compared to league average? seems like that’d get rid of any time heterogeneity in K%

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