As a minor league pitcher, Felix Hernandez was defined by his devastating slider. Last week I found this tweet by Shannon Drayer and I’ve been sitting on this post since then, until I could get reconnected with the web. It seems after a year long break-up, Felix and his slider have decided against irreconcilable differences, and are instead, attempting to make their relationship work. Hernandez said that his slider took a vacation last season, but this year he has rededicated himself to the pitch. So why the break to begin with? Maybe only Felix knows, though it seems he forgot just how nasty his slider can be.
First things first, the data backs his statement. Felix used his slider 3.6% less often in 2011 than the year prior. Felix employed his slider most often in 2007 at a astonishing 20.7%. His lowest usage came in 2005 at a measly 3.3% due to a team imposed ban on the pitch. Over the course of his career, he has averaged a 12.8% usage.
Just how good is the King’s slider? In cases such as these, it is always best to measure against those whom have already established themselves. Who sheaths the leagues most devastating sliders under the scabbard of leather baseball gloves? Clayton Kershaw, Randy Johnson, Bob Gibson, David Cone, Michael Pineda, Carlos Marmol, Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia and Francisco Liriano are all pitchers who have been classified as wielding outstanding sliders. Obviously that is a rather large list, so some trimming is going to be necessary. Let’s cut Gibson, Johnson, Pineda, and Cone because they have limited to no PitchFx data. Let’s cut out Marmol because he’s a reliever, and also cut Liriano because, well…. he’s just hasn’t been very good recently. So that leaves us with King Felix against Sabathia, Greinke, and Kershaw.
Out of any of the pitchers above, King Felix undoubtedly slings the slider the least. Not that it is necessarily a bad thing, as utilizing an entire repertoire is always in a pitchers best interest. Below is a chart featuring slider velocity, vertical, and horizontal motion of the aforementioned pitchers.
Felix and Greinke are equipped with harder, cutter-like sliders, while Sabathia and Kershaw present their opponents with a more traditional slurve-like pitch. Knowing the type of slider thrown doesn’t tell us much of anything. So again, lets go to another chart.
A pitch that generates excellent swing and miss rates and creates massive groundball tendencies is one that every pitcher in the game desires. Our ace possesses such a pitch, and it speaks greatly to the rest of his repertoire that he felt he didn’t have to use it as often for an entire season. Modern Felix has four extremely good pitches: a sinker, power curve, change, and a slider. He doesn’t have to lean on any of them heavier than the others. Does Felix have the best slider in baseball? Probably not. All four of these pitchers’ sliders offer something different to opposing hitters when nodding yes to the slider. Felix does what he does best by creating large quantities of groudballs with his, while Kershaw just doesn’t allow the opposition to touch his. Felix still has his devastating slider, it has just evolved and grown… just as our ace and his process has.
No single pitch is the answer. If there was such a pitch, then everyone would be throwing it and baseball would become a very boring sport. The slider has it’s advantages, especially when you have guys like Felix throwing one. I’m not sure why Felix decided not to use his slider last year. I’m just happy he’s bringing it back. I look forward to analyzing the early data on his slider usage, and I will be interested to see if he continues to use it consistently throughout the year.