Felix Hernandez’s days as an elite starting pitcher are over. That’s not a knock on him, nor does that make him any less of the ace that he is for his ballclub. It’s just that King Felix posted a season that pretty much replicated his production in 2010 and 2011 — production that, in between those two seasons, earned him the #2 spot on Razzball’s 2011 preseason top-20 starting pitchers — and he finished 16th.
The King dominated in 2015 the same way he has dominated for the better part of the last decade. But everything is relative, and his performance was relatively underwhelming given the glut of young talent that has emerged at the Major League level. To attest:
Hernandez’s WAR per 200 innings pitched (WAR/200) is markedly lower than it was four years ago. Trouble with fly balls shoulders some blame — WAR is calculated using FIP, and FIP treats home runs per fly ball (HR/FB) as skill rather than luck — but the talent around him shoulders the rest.
Hernandez didn’t do anything wrong to deserve the inflated HR/FB, by the way. He allowed more pulled balls in play (Pull%) than ever before — the shortest home run is down the line — but allowed his lowest hard-hit rate (Hard%) since, ah, 2011, of course. He also matched last year’s ground ball rate (GB%), both of which are his best marks since 2007. And, because he allows fewer fly balls, each additional (or prevented) home run moves his HR/FB more violently than an extreme fly ball pitcher. In this regard, I’m not particularly worried for the King.
The strikeouts are probably the biggest concern, but his rates from the last two years — 26.3% in 2013, 27.2% in 2014 — spoiled us. Superman can’t always be Clark Kent. Sometimes, a king has to take a break from secretly moonlighting as a jester. (But, like, the best jester.)
Felix is losing velocity on his fastball as all man are wont to do. But this piece by Eno Sarris, which also references work by Jeff Sullivan, highlights how effective closing the velocity gap between a pitcher’s fastball and offspeed pitch(es) can be, especially if he maintains his arm speed and slot. Inadvertently (but not accidentally), Felix’s diminishing fastball velocity continues to close that gap, and it should help play up his pitches for years to come.
Ironically, it’s not Felix’s fabled change-up that has been his most effective pitch recently. His curveball ranks second overall and sixth per 100 curves thrown in value among all qualified pitchers the last two years, one spot ahead of Clayton Kershaw’s more-fabled curve on both lists. Of course, Sullivan keenly and adeptly chronicled the effectiveness of the pitch back in May.
So it’s technically not news, but maybe we should have noticed sooner. And if he continues to increasingly reach for the bender — 13.0% usage in 2013, 16.2% in 2014, 20.7% in 2015 — he’ll likely continue to find success. Sullivan remarks about what I want to call a phenomenon but is really just smart pitching: Hernandez is his own mechanic, fixing a broken part or replacing that specific part if it is unfixable. And some things can’t be fixed. Felix adapts.
That long digression buries my typical plate discipline analysis that goes as follows: everything looks the same. The swing rates, chase rates, contact rates — aside from minor fluctuation, they’re all generally the same. I actually think Hernandez got a bit lucky with his strikeout rate the two years preceding 2015. The peripherals in 2013 barely varied from 2012’s, yet he experienced a nice spike, and his zone contact rate (Z-Contact%) dipped inexplicably in 2014, fueling a bump in his swinging strike rate (SwStr%). Zone contact is tough to control; pitcher’s have varying skill sets when it comes to limiting in-zone contact, but wholesale departures from a pitcher’s “average” Z-Contact% are typically anomalies.
If we’re nitpicking, the 2-percentage point increase in the King’s walk rate (BB%) is of minor concern here, dude. But, again, looking at peripherals, not a lot has changed. He throws more first-pitch strikes than ever before, and PITCHf/x says he’s peppering the zone less frequently — an alarming development only if hitters don’t swing. But they do. They offer more often than ever before. They made their most contact since 2011 on Hernandez’s pitches outside the zone, but you’d think more contact would manifest as fewer strikeouts, not more walks. My pseudo-scientific approach here leads me to believe that he should rebound in the free-pass department, although obviously any gains and losses here are minimal bordering on trivial. (Indeed, Steamer thinks Hernandez will split the difference between his 2014 and 2015 walk rates.)
In 2016, the King will resume his throne. He’ll probably strike out about 8.5 hitters per nine innings (K/9) and walk about 2.0 BB/9. The HR/FB will come down to 10% or so — his new norm, given his stellar ground ball rate — and all will be right with the world. Only thing is a bunch of youngsters will challenge his reign. FantasyPros slot him 14th in their preseason rankings. It feels low, but it’ll likely be spot-on. And his consistency and durability make him as good a bet as anyone to pay off his draft price.