The Curious Case of Mariners’ Felix Hernandez

Felix Hernandez pitched well in a loss to the Oakland Athletics this passed Sunday, going 6.2 innings while notching seven strike outs. His only blunder was surrendering a 2-run home run to Jed Lowrie, which would ultimately cost him the game. Felix is now 2-2 with a 5.48 ERA thus far in 2018, while sporting a 15/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

It has certainly been a roller coaster of a season so far for the former Cy Young winner as he looks to bounce back from a poor 2017 campaign. Hernandez spent the majority of last season battling bursitis in his throwing shoulder and his performance suffered for it. The concerns surrounding Hernandez’s health and overall durability have continued into 2018 due to his diminishing velocity on his four-seam fastball. According to FanGraphs, Felix is only averaging between 90-92 miles per hour on his four-seam fastball this year, a significant drop from just several years ago when he averaged between 94-96 miles per hour.

While Hernandez is only 32 years old, it is easy to forget that he made his Major League debut as a 19-year-old back in 2005. From the years of 2008 through 2015 he never threw less than 200 innings in a season. As a result, in what will be the 14th season of his career Felix has already surpassed 2,500 total innings pitched. He has been the living embodiment of the term “workhorse” throughout his career, but time catches up with everybody eventually. Hernandez can no longer rear back and challenge hitters with a fastball in the high 90’s anymore, his shoulder simply can not handle it any longer.

This begs the question: what can we expect to see out of Felix Hernandez going forward? Perhaps more importantly, how much longer can we expect to see it? Taking a look at his game logs up to this point in 2018 can provide us with some answers to those questions.

In his first start against the Cleveland Indians on March 29, Hernandez pitched 5.2 innings, throwing a total of 81 pitches in a victorious outing. In that game Felix threw a total of 16 four-seam fastballs, averaging 90 miles per hour in velocity. The max velocity he reached on his fastball in that outing was just 92 miles per hour, according to Brooks Baseball. Felix’s next start against the San Francisco Giants on April 4 was disastrous, lasting just 4 innings and surrendering 8 earned runs. In that game Hernandez threw just nine four-seam fastballs while relying heavily on his sinker-ball, which he threw 39 times out of his total 87 pitches.

With diminishing velocity, Felix Hernandez will have to stay smart and challenge hitters with off-speed stuff to remain an elite pitcher.Click To Tweet

His next two starts, both solid performances, were no different in terms of his approach. In his April 10 start against the Kansas City Royals, Hernandez threw just six fastballs and threw 33 sinker balls, and during his April 15 start against the Oakland A’s, he threw just five fastballs while throwing 34 sinker balls.

The data tells the story for us. Felix is deviating away from his fastball and relying more on his sinker ball at this point in his career. The diminished velocity makes his four-seam fastball less effective since four-seam fastballs typically have no movement, and throwing 90-mile-per-hour straight fastballs to Major League Baseball hitters usually ends poorly for the pitcher.

Hernandez has always had great stuff, particularly his knee-buckling change-up which has been making big-league hitters look like children for years now. He is as cerebral as he is naturally talented on the mound, so adopting a new style of pitching is not beyond his capabilities. Should Felix be able to fully harness the sinker ball as a part of his arsenal then he could experience a career resurgence this season. However, there are two sides to every coin, and as Felix adapts to his new style so will the rest of the league. Opposing hitters will now begin to sit on his breaking pitches rather than his fastball, so Hernandez will have to remain sharp and continue to out-maneuver his opponents.

It is still early, and Hernandez’s last two performances should bring some optimism to Mariners fans. Whether or not he can have consistent success with this new approach, however, remains to be seen.

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