Both Felix Hernandez and Josh Beckett were given hefty contract extensions this past offseason, with both of their teams paying them to pitch like aces. Both right-handers were on the mound Monday night, and while one of them is looking like a very wise investment, the other is not. And there’s a pretty simple explanation as to why.
King Felix drew the Kansas City Royals to close out his April slate and held the hot-hitting Royals to two earned runs through seven innings. Hernandez did walk three but also struck out seven. The most notable thing about his outing — besides the fact that his team failed to score while he was in the game — was his ground-ball rate. Prior to the start, 62 percent of batted balls against Hernandez this season were of the ground-ball variety, a mark that will represent a career high if it holds up. (His career ground-ball rate is 57 percent.) On Monday night, 14 of the 23 balls put into play by the Royals were on the ground — or roughly 61 percent.
The reason for Hernandez’s increased ground-ball rate is his increased sinker velocity. Pitch f/x data collected from the 2009 and 2010 seasons says Hernandez is throwing his sinker nearly 94 mph on average thus far this season, while the pitch was closer to 90 mph last season. The 24-year-old might lose some velocity over the grind of a long season, but for now, Herandez’s sinker is simply overpowering hitters, and his 2.15 ERA suggests as much.
As for Beckett, he was striking out just 5.96 batters per nine innings entering Monday’s affair with the Toronto Blue Jays and had a 5.26 ERA. The Jays lead the league in strikeout percentage, making them the perfect opponent for Beckett to rack up some K’s against, right? Wrong. Beckett lasted all of three innings while allowing eight earned runs on nine hits to go with three strikeouts, three walks and a home run allowed. His ERA is now 7.22.
The biggest shifts in Beckett’s game are an increased number of changeups and a decreased number of swinging strikes. Beckett is using his changeup more than he ever has with Boston, and the results have not been pretty. FanGraphs’ run values suggest the changeup is his worst pitch on a rate basis, and it’s not particularly close. For every 100 changeups, Beckett is costing his team nearly three runs. What’s odd about that is last year, when Beckett had a 3.86 ERA, his change was his most valuable pitch. For every 100 times thrown, it was worth 2.16 runs. This year, he is throwing it more than 14 percent of the time. Last year, he threw it 8.6 percent of the time. Obviously, something is wrong with the offering. And a look at the chart below tells the story: Beckett is leaving his changeup up in the zone far more frequently.
Meanwhile, only 7.4 percent of Beckett’s pitches are resulting in swings and misses, a stark contrast to his career percentage of 9.9 percentage. Swinging strikes correlate pretty well with strikeouts, so this is not what Boston wants to see from its $68 million-dollar man.
In both cases, the alterations to their pitch repertoires and the contrasting degrees of success could be just coincidence or small sample sizes playing with the numbers. Whatever the truth is, both the Red Sox and Mariners will need their aces to thrive if their playoff hopes are to be categorized as anything but just hopes.
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