It’s no secret that Felix Hernandez struggled in 2016, looking little like the ace Mariners fans had come to expect from 2009-2014. After a good-but-not great 2015, there was some hope that Hernandez would fix what ailed him and come back as the fire-breathing ace he’s been for more than a half-decade.
Instead, he had the worst season of his career, striking out 7.2 per nine, walking 3.8 per nine, and allowing 1.1 home runs per nine. His sudden decline from ace to barely-passable fourth starter has baffled fans and media members alike. Many point to his declining velocity — his fastball averaged just 90.5 miles per hour in 2016, the lowest of his career.
Of course, the real answer has nothing to do with velocity. The answer is far simpler. The Muddy Mound Game Conspiracy has been hidden from the public’s memory for long enough, and it’s time to wake up, sheeple! Those close to me have called me a “muddy-mound truther,” as if that’s a negative thing. But, folks, don’t believe what they’re telling you. I’ve got the facts, and once you’ve taken in this mind-blowing information, you’re not likely to ever trust a grounds crew again.
The muddy-mound game is the day everything changed for Hernandez. I’m talking, of course, about June 1, 2015, when the Mariners faced the Yankees at home.
Because of a malfunction with the Safeco Field roof, rain covered the mound, making it muddy and slippery. Hernandez visibly had trouble with his stride leg in his delivery, and was seen at times scraping the dirt out from between his cleats.
Through the first three innings, Hernandez was perfect, striking out three and inducing five ground-ball outs. And then, in the top of the fourth inning, as the rain came down harder and covered the mound, Hernandez appeared to land awkwardly on his first pitch to the inning’s second batter, Chase Headley.
At that point, it was clear something wasn’t right. Hernandez would walk five batters in the next inning-and-two-thirds (after having walked just 15 in 70.2 total innings up until that point in 2015) and give up seven runs before being removed.
This is the point, almost exactly, where Hernandez’s command abandoned him. From this game forward, Hernandez has had 46 starts, and has walked 3.4 per nine. In the 46 starts leading up to this game, he was averaging just 1.9 walks per nine. It seems unlikely that an ace pitcher would lose his command entirely in the span of two innings, but the numbers say that’s exactly what has happened.
Mariners fans may recall that in 2009, Hernandez began to add a Luis Tiant/Fernando Valenzuela-esque twist to his windup. Hernandez himself said that he had picked it up from watching teammate Erik Bedard. It should be noted that Hernandez made the jump from “promising young pitcher” to “perennial Cy Young contender” in 2009. The twist in his windup may not be directly responsible for Hernandez’s ascension to the throne, but it certainly played a large role.
In the chart below, you’ll see four sets of data. The first column is from when Hernandez debuted through the 2008 season. Row two spans 2009 until June 1, 2015 — from when he first started adding the twist, until the muddy-mound game. Row three is the 46 starts before June 1, 2015, and row four shows us the 46 games including, and since, the muddy-mound game.
So, not only has Hernandez declined dramatically since the fourth inning of that game, but it’s actually been the worst stretch he’s had in his entire career. Oddly enough, this stretch has come right after the best stretch of his career.
But there’s more! It’s not just boring data that shows dramatic decline. There’s been a visible change in Hernandez windup over the last year and a half since this game. I’m going to play right into my enemies’ hands here — as they would say, I’m putting on my tinfoil hat. But, the joke is on them, because now they can’t hear my thoughts.
Three things stand out — Hernandez has reduced the torque of his twist, he’s lowered his hands, and the position of his stride leg is inconsistent. I took a series of images of Hernandez at the top of his windup, detailing the changes. To the undeniable proof!
First, we have an image from Hernandez’s perfect game against Tampa Bay on August 19, 2012:
The twist is as prominent as ever in this game; the front of Hernandez’s shoulder is basically facing the viewer. His hands are close to his neck, and his arms are raised high enough for us to read the jersey script. Hernandez’s drive leg is bent at a slight angle. Considering he threw a perfect game with 12 strikeouts with these mechanics, it would seem that these represent a good version of his windup.
Let’s jump ahead. This one comes from April 18, 2015 — Hernandez’s second home start of the year.
For the most part, things look similar here. He’s turning slightly less, but we can still read the jersey script, and see most of the front of his left shoulder. Moving on!
Nothing appeared too different in his next few starts, though he didn’t look exactly the same as the previous image. This image is from the first inning of the infamous muddy mound game itself:
Some small tweaks, but for the most part, things appear the same. Considering Hernandez was dominating during this stretch, it’s hard to argue with the results.
Here’s an image from Hernandez’s first slip off the mound in the fourth inning:
Unfortunately, Hernandez spent most of the rest of his outing after slipping pitching from the stretch, so it’s hard to find an example of his windup immediately after the injury. It’s hard to tell from this image, but this came on the first pitch of the second at-bat of the fourth inning. Hernandez falls off the mound, looks a little ginger on his left foot, but shakes it off and returns to the mound. The story is the same for the very next pitch. Hernandez appears to be visibly uncomfortable, on his way to walking five batters and throwing a wild pitch.
Small changes to his motion became evident throughout the rest of 2015, and the best example of these changes came on September 10 against the Rangers:
It’s clear that his hands have lowered, though his front shoulder still seems pretty well twisted to face us, the viewer. It’s also notable that Hernandez’s stride leg is now wrapped more around him at an angle, whereas before it was closer to perpendicular with the ground. Hernandez didn’t give up a run in this game, but did walk four batters.
In Hernandez’s second home start of 2016, April 29 against the Royals, we see not much has changed:
His hands have raised slightly, but still cover the jersey script more than before. Where his shoulder once squarely faced the camera, it appears almost to be pointing straight at the batter in this picture. His stride leg still appears to be almost wrapped around his drive leg — consistent with the last image, but more dramatic than at any point before that. It’s worth noting that Hernandez walked 18 batters in just 32.2 April innings in 2016.
Skipping ahead to Hernandez’s return from the disabled list, things appear to be more problematic:
Hernandez’s hands are now at an all-time low, almost entirely covering the jersey script. The front shoulder still faces the batter more than it used to, and the angle of his stride leg seems as wrapped over the drive leg’s knee as ever.
The last exhibit from the 2016 season comes on September 5 against Texas:
Hernandez’s hands appear to have lowered even a little further. His stride leg is angled so much that it’s almost passing over his drive leg’s knee from our point of view. While his front shoulder once looked square and broad to the viewer, we now essentially just see the side of Hernandez’s arm, and little of the shoulder itself. At this point, he’s twisting less than ever, his hands are at their low point, and his stride leg is the most out-of-whack it’s ever been.
The final piece of evidence — and I apologize for the quality, but winter-league baseball isn’t streamed at the quality of MLB games — is from Winter Ball. Observe:
The camera angle here isn’t exactly the same as Safeco Field, but as the most recent piece of evidence of what Felix is doing, it should be included. First, some good news: Hernandez’s stride leg is more perpendicular with the ground than it has been since the first three innings of the muddy-mound game itself. His hands have been raised up above the jersey script partially, though not quite as high as before the injury occurred.
The bad news, though, is the worst news. Hernandez has less of a torso-twist in his windup than ever. In fact, we can’t even see his shoulder at the top of his windup — the only image where this is true.
Watching the video, the twist seems less dramatic than at any point. It should be mentioned that in the video this was lifted from, Hernandez’s line is: 1 IP, 2 H, 2R, 2BB, 1 K. He also threw a wild pitch with no one aboard, and threw the ball into center field for an error when the runner on first took off early.
So why did the King stop twisting so much? It’s hard to say. Hernandez has been known throughout his career as a guy that doesn’t watch much film of himself. He didn’t even start throwing bullpens in between starts until late in 2016. I exchanged messages with 710 ESPN Mariners Insider, Shannon Drayer, to confirm that both of those statements are true.
My hypothesis? He subtly changed his motion to not feel pain in his ankle after slipping on the muddy mound. Less twist means less torque, which means less force landing on the ankle, and that his legs will land just a bit sooner. This has caused his legs to be “ahead” of the motion of his upper body, and with that he’s lost his feel for his command.
As someone who doesn’t watch film, it seems entirely believable that once Hernandez got healthy, he didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong, and the bad habits he picked up to compensate for his injury became his new normal.
Velocity would be nice, but Hernandez, more than anything, needs to rediscover his command. He pitched at an ace level in 2013 with a 91.3 MPH average fastball. Velocity doesn’t usually return with age, but command can.
The path toward re-discovering his command appears clear. Hernandez needs to return to his older wind-up, when he twisted so much that the batters could read his name and number on his jersey. He became an ace when he began twisting, and began falling apart when he stopped twisting.
It appears that he made progress in winter ball with his hands and his stride leg. Though I remain skeptical that his performance is going to rebound in any significant way until he makes like Chubby Checker and starts doing the twist again.
Brett Miller does the agate page for the print edition of the Seattle Times. He is also a proud Washington State University alum, and good at drinking beer and taking criticism. Complain about this article directly to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.