It has only been three starts, but already after starts one and two, my FanGraphs colleagues have sounded the alarm bells on Felix Hernandez. Now it’s my turn to speculate after outing number three. I greatly dislike speculating and do my best to avoid temptation. But when the signs are there, it’s difficult to ignore them.
King Felix has had an interesting first three games. For the non-FanGraphs reader and more casual baseball fan, it might appear like he has performed as well as ever. After all, his ERA sits at a sparkling 1.00 over 18 innings. How could one be worried about a pitcher who has allowed just two earned runs in three starts?! One must dig deeper, of course.
The first concern is one that has already been mentioned and we’re all well aware of — his fastball velocity. Let’s check out his Pitch Type game log, going back to 2013, as far back as it goes. We’ll sort by fastball velocity and find that he has averaged below 90 mph only five times since:
All three of his starts to open the season make up part of the bottom five, and not since his second start in 2013 has he sat as low as he has. It’s normal for pitchers to lose velocity as they age and for a pitcher’s velocity to tick up as the season progresses. But he’s currently over two miles per hour short of where he stood last year, which is significant. In all likelihood, this suggests that assuming he does gain back some velocity, he’ll still end up well below expectations given what we would expect him to lose this season.
Interestingly, the velocity loss hasn’t yet affected his ability to induce swings and misses. His current 11.7% SwStk% is actually the second highest of his career. Over the years, his fastball usage has declined from the low 60% range, down to the mid-50% range, and now down into the low-40% range. That change in pitch mix has been made as his fastball velocity has dropped. What’s funny is that PITCHf/x has clearly been confused by his velocity loss, as it’s registering a big bump in changeup frequency this year. The BIS data disagrees, and is probably the more accurate numbers.
What has not yet been discussed is perhaps an even more ominous sign — his control. Felix walked five batters in his first start and another six in his latest outing. That now pushes his walk total up to a whopping 13 in just 18 innings, for a very un-Felix like 16.5% walk rate. After his last game, he had this to say:
“When I got into the game, it wasn’t there. There was a lot of movement on the ball. The ball was going everywhere. It was mechanics. I was behind the ball a little bit. I was all over the place.”
Well yeah, you don’t walk six batters if you’re throwing strikes! Of course you were all over the place. Were your mechanics an issue during your first start as well? Now here’s the kicker. Check out a graph of his strike percentage throughout his entire career:
Woah, that’s scary, eh? Now, I have no idea if he’s ever endured a three-game stretch with a strike percentage that low. But he has been remarkably consistent throughout his career, so this seriously stands out.
Let’s remember back to last year when Felix was shut down at the end of the season with stiffness in his right elbow. Uh oh. So he dealt with an elbow issue, and now he can’t throw strikes, plus his velocity is down significantly? Are you thinking what I’m thinking? I would be extremely nervous if I were a Felix owner, a Mariners fan, or Felix himself.
If you are a Felix owner, he has done you all a great favor by not allowing a homer, posting just a .200 BABIP, and stranding over 80% of runners. All that good fortune has masked his poor pitching so far and given you a window with which to shop him. Surely someone in your league will stop at the 1.00 ERA, think all is fine, and be willing to give up a pretty good hitter, or even a comparable pitcher. How about Corey Kluber?
This may all just be an early season blip, and for all we know, Felix could be back up to 91+ mph, with improved control thanks to a mechanical fix. But the alarm bells are blaring and the risk is higher than ever that Felix is dealing with a serious issue. Better to reduce your risk and see what you could get for him, then hold and hope for the best.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: 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. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.