Once Felix Hernandez was moved into the bullpen he vowed to be a starter again, and sooner than later, by necessity, he was. After only one bullpen appearance, Felix was tossed back into the rotation where he has continued an interesting trend with refined mechanics.
Just before Felix Hernandez’s first relief appearance ever, Fish Stripes wrote an article suggesting the simplification of his pitch mix could be a stepping stone toward better command. While the specific conclusions may vary in agreeability, Felix had already begun to adopt this “less is more” approach and come up with some desirable results.
Since returning from the DL at the end of July, Felix has rarely thrown his slider and has eased off his 4-seam fastball considerably.
If you pull up Felix’s July 21st start on Brooks Baseball, you’ll find that he didn’t throw a single curveball that game. His average “slider” that day had curveball-like velocity and movement, so it’s possible (or even likely) that those pitches were miscategorized. Therefore, I’ve assumed them to be curveballs.
With that said, these adjustments have whittled Felix’s pitch mix to nearly 95% sinkers, changeups, and curveballs. And that change might have been overdue.
Although the slider was never Felix’s go-to breaking ball, he seems to have lost the feel for it this year.
Not only has its velocity dropped about 2 mph, its horizontal movement hasn’t been as tight compared to his curveball either.
Here are the differences in velocity and horizontal movement between Felix’s slider and curveball from 2015 through his start on July 6th, 2018 (before he went on the DL):
|Year||Velocity Diff. (mph)||H. Mov Diff. (in.)|
|2018 (through 07/06)||3.58||-2.26|
The line between the two pitches was still evident but less distinct. Possibly, batters were having an easier time recognizing the slider as a breaking ball while not losing their ability to differentiate it from the curveball. In a similar vein, it is possible that Felix’s 2018 slider had created a pitch tunneling problem that rendered it ineffective.
Regardless of the reason, the slider hadn’t been productive for Felix to that point in the year as batters slugged .684 against it, and the solution appears to have been to eliminate the pitch almost entirely.
On top of that, Felix has recently relied more on his sinker than ever before
Since that July 21st start, Felix has thrown his sinker 42.16% of the time and let his 4-seam fastball percentage drop to 4.14%.
Sure, neither is a great pitch, but he needs something to get over for strikes. While his sinker might, in fact, be the worse of the two pitches, it is at least a ground ball pitch.
And maybe that keys us in on what Felix has been trying to do.
Although his GB% is still above average, Felix hasn’t been the groundball pitcher he used to be.
For the second straight year and only the third time ever, Felix’s GB% has remained under 50%, and partly because of this, he has seen his home run rate go from a strength to a question mark to a legitimate hindrance.
Given waning stuff and wavering command from Felix, home runs will always be an issue — getting groundballs is now that much more important. If Felix can’t prevent fly balls from leaving the park, he can try to serve up fewer fly balls in the first place and carry fewer baserunners to further limit the damage.
By cutting out a disastrous slider and moving away from a fly-ball 4-seamer, Felix has tried to set himself up to revive his strong groundball tendencies.
But anything and everything about the success of Felix Hernandez likely comes down to command. The groundballs won’t return with one quick fix, so it’s important to recognize small adjustments and track improvement.
During Felix’s recent start against the Athletics, commentator Mike Blowers referenced a conversation he had with Scott Servais about Felix’s mechanics. Servais had noted a mechanical change toward the end of August and when Dave Sims brought it up, Blowers had this to say:
"Blowers: Basically, what he did was — that turn that he normally has? He’s going about halfway now.Sims: He used to show his number.Blowers: Yeah, so he’s still turning, but when he would turn too much, he would fly open right away. His arm would drag and that’s the reason why he was having issues, so he’s not turning as much."
Evidently, lessening the rotational motion in Felix’s delivery has him focused on extension and driving toward the plate and that has helped him pick up 1 mph or so on his sinker.
Additionally, since the August 20th start referenced by Servais, Felix’s average horizontal release point has tightened up about an inch closer to center. These changes are actually evident one step further back during his relief appearance.
While the results haven’t been too pretty since Felix made his relief pitching debut (4.56 ERA/4.67 FIP), the process has been encouraging.
Felix has parlayed tweaked mechanics into improved sinker command and a small velocity bump. He is also equipped with a simpler pitch mix, he has managed an impressive 52.3% GB% while holding batters to a .212/.280/.400 line (.230 BABIP) since August 14th. And although it is not a good predictive measure for pitchers, his .303 xwOBA in that time lends some legitimacy to his past results.
Felix is pitching like he knows his future is on the line. Inconsistency is apparent and expected, but he has responded to his continued poor performance by adjusting his repertoire and then his mechanics.
It is a fool’s errand to ponder ways in which Felix could return to his dominant self, yet in the process of regaining some level of productivity, he is seemingly already a step or two in the right direction. That his success largely hinges on the command of diminished stuff means there probably is no hope for King Felix, but if the last few weeks mean anything, there may yet be hope for Felix Hernandez.
All stats referenced prior to games on 09/04/18