King Felix

OK, let’s talk about Felix Hernandez, the pitching ace for the Seattle Mariners.

King Felix celebrated his 28th birthday last week. He also celebrated the beginning of his 10th season in the Majors.  That’s right, he arrived in the big leagues all the way back in 2005 (well, halfway through the season) at the tender age of 19. He was definitely in the express lane up to that point; he started his professional career in the 2005 season at AAA Tacoma, appeared in 19 games (14 starts) and then was called up to the majors.

From that point on, in rough terms, his career has followed a predictable arc.  Let’s put aside his 2005 year; many mid-season or late-season callups put up anomalous numbers in their debut year because the opposing teams haven’t seen their stuff yet and their scouts and players simply don’t have enough experience to know how to bat against them, and which hitters are likely to do well, and how to construct a lineup that will maximize their chances of lighting him up.

In 2006, Felix pitched 191 innings with an ERA of 4.52. Nothing to write home about, and pretty much what you would expect for a young pitcher in his first full season, having gone through spring training and with all the opposing teams having scouted him out and in most cases racked up some at-bats against him.

What we would then expect to see is year-over-year improvement, with the possibility of a “breakout year” where suddenly everything clicks.

So what happened to him from there? Check it out:

Year Age IP ERA K/9 BB/9 GB%
2006 20 191 4.52 8.3 2.8 59%
2007 21 190 3.92 7.8 2.5 61%
2008 22 201 3.45 7.8 3.6 52%
2009 23 238 2.49 8.2 2.7 54%
2010 24 250 2.27 8.4 2.5 55%
2011 25 234 3.47 8.6 2.6 51%
2012 26 232 3.06 8.7 2.2 50%
2013 27 204 3.04 9.5 2.0 53%

 

I’ve laid out five stats here that pretty much tell the story of Felix’s career to-date. So let’s unpack this.

For many years now, the Mariners have been a team with excellent discipline around growing and caring for their young pitching prospects.  Major league pitching is brutal on pitchers’ arms (witness the epidemic of Tommy John surgeries as of late) and the good pitching coaches know that young pitchers who are still learning new pitches, trying to increase their velocity, and fine-tuning their mechanics are at severe risk of damaging their arms if overworked. Normally a starting pitcher will pitch somewhere around 220 innings per season, plus or minus perhaps 20. For his first couple of years, Felix was on a strict limit of innings pitched; a common practice which has shown real benefit.

Now there is all sorts of fuzzy math going on here, because “innings” are measured in outs, not in pitches, and the real measure of workload for a pitcher is pitches thrown. So a terrible pitcher will face a lot more batters and will likely throw more pitches than a good pitcher. But more subtly, pitchers who strike out a lot of batters also tend to have higher pitch counts than pitchers who predominantly get batters to hit ground balls or fly balls, since a strikeout requires a minimum of 3 pitches per out, while an at-bat that ends with a ground out or fly out can take as little as a single pitch. Of course, ground balls are preferable to fly balls, since fly balls sometime turn into home runs. So it’s important for us to look at the kind of pitcher that Felix is, to understand what this all means.

If you live in Seattle, then you are only too aware that Felix is known for striking out a lot of batters. For the batters he doesn’t strike out, a large number of them hit ground balls  (GB%)  — over his career anywhere from 50% to 61%. So that’s a good combination, and one of the key reasons that Felix is such a good pitcher (especially when he has strong defense backing him up in the Mariners infield).

Between 2006 and 2010, Felix’s ERA went down, down, down as he continued to develop his skills. We see at the same time that the number of strikeouts per 9 innings (“K/9” in the table) crept up.  And importantly, the number of walks per 9 innings (“BB/9”)  crept down.  Put these together, and it says that these were really solid development years for him where he just kept getting better and better at the fundamentals of pitching — struck out more, kept good control over his pitches, and kept the ball in the park and playable.

Now, behind the scenes over these years, he lost a little bit of velocity on his fastball (probably to improve his control — he’s too young to lose it because of age) but made up for it by developing some nasty secondary pitches, including a vicious changeup, a slider and a curveball.  When that happened, as you can see his groundball percentage went down a bit as people started hitting more fly balls off of him.

Fortunately for Felix, he gets to pitch half of his games in Safeco Field, which as I’ve mentioned in a previous post is a well-documented pitcher’s park. The cold, wet air and prevailing winds tends to keep fly balls in the park, and the wide foul territories give lots of room for the fields to catch foul balls. There is no doubt that Felix’s performance has benefited from playing here, but that in no way diminishes his accomplishments in terms of developing his skills over the years.

And then there’s 2011, when his ERA jumped from a miniscule 2.27 up to 3.47. Now, to be fair, 3.47 is still an ERA that 99% of the pitchers in the Major Leagues would kill to have, and the other 1% are certifiably insane. But for a pitcher as consistent as Felix, and for one as young as 25, it raises eyebrows: something happened. And there is a multiple-part answer to what happened. First, the story really starts in 2010, when Felix pitched 250 innings, the heaviest load he had ever carried. There is plenty of documentation showing that a heavy load like that in one season has a detrimental effect the following year. Also, people who looked deeper into the stats showed that more batters were getting hits on the first pitch he threw, so he had probably fallen into a predictable pattern. Pitchers can’t afford to be predictable.

In 2012, Felix made the necessary adjustments (and he carried over a lighter load from 2011) and the numbers came back down again and stayed that way in 2013.  The fact that his BB/9 rate has continued to go down  (2.0 is a ridiculously low number) is the surest sign that nine years in, he is continuing to develop into a better and better pitcher.

Felix is now 28.  Conventional wisdom says 28 is when most pitchers hit their peak performance, so from this point forward we shouldn’t be expecting him to get much better (and honestly, there really isn’t much better that he could get, he’s already so good). Assuming he stays healthy, he ought to be able to maintain this level into his early 30’s. He’ll continue to lose a bit of velocity off his fastball – all pitchers do as they age – but with his arsenal of other pitches, that won’t end his career as it does for those who are primarily fastball pitchers.

So how much of an injury risk is he?  Actually, not much. He’s been remarkably healthy over the years, which is a combination of the overprotectiveness the Mariners coaching staff showed in his first few years, and the kindness of pitching in Safeco Field. His 2013 season ended early because of a minor injury, but before that the last time he was on the DL was back in 2008. And the lighter load in 2013 might give him an extra boost going into this year.

So all in all, it looks like “all systems go” for Felix this year. He had a strong spring training and has been on a tear in his first three starts of the regular season. Felix is under contract with the Mariners through 2019, for which he’s getting paid handsomely, so if all goes well we can expect at least a few more years of King Felix holding court in Seattle.

 

 

 

 

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