Was Last Year More Than A Blip For Felix Hernandez?
Making the Hall of Fame as a starting pitcher is harder than ever at the moment. Possibly the best pitcher of all time, Roger Clemens, hasn’t come close to reaching the Hall, and pitchers with track records better than the average Hall of Fame pitcher, like Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, have also fallen well short. As far as current pitchers go, it seemed that Felix Hernandez was well on track to make the Hall. He logged a 3.11 ERA in over 2000 innings, with six All-Star appearances and a Cy Young Award, all before age 30. Yet after a clear step backward last year, Hernandez’s status as a Hall of Famer is in doubt.
Hernandez’s drop in performance was evident in his surface numbers in 2016. He made 25 starts and logged 153 innings, his lowest totals since his rookie season in 2005. His 3.82 ERA seemed passable, but his 106 ERA+ was his worst such figure since 2006. His fielding independent numbers were career-worst, as his FIP ballooned to 4.63, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 122 to 65 was mediocre.
After totaling nearly 50 rWAR over the course of the first eleven years of his career, Hernandez was worth just 1.6 rWAR in 2016. Yet even with such a relatively poor year, Hernandez would seem to still have track record on his side. Projection systems remember Hernandez’s long, excellent career and see him as a fine candidate to rebound. Steamer, for instance, pegs Hernandez for 203 innings and over 3 fWAR in 2017.
But look closer, and there are reasons to be less optimistic. In fact, some signs of decline warn that 2016 could be less a blip on the radar, and more of a new-normal for Hernandez.
Pitchers that reach their thirties lose velocity all the time, and Hernandez has been no different. King Felix entered the league as a genuine fire-baller, regularly touching 99 mph as a starter back in 2007, according to Brooks Baseball. No starter can be expected to maintain that kind of heat forever, but even as Hernandez progressed through his twenties, he steadily kept his fastball velocity around 93 to 94 mph.
The bottom dropped out on Hernandez’s velocity in 2016. The average velocity on his four-seamer was 91.2 mph in 2016, while his sinker averaged a meager 90.8 mph. The results he managed with his fastballs were consequently worse. His two-seamer used to be a worm-burner, a pitch that generated a ground ball on over 53% of balls in play. That rate fell to 48% in 2016, and hitters teed off on his sinker, to the tune of a .331 batting average and .616 slugging percentage.
Opposing hitters ran a .268 batting average and .402 slugging on Hernandez’s four-seamer, after holding batters to below a .230 batting average with the pitch entering 2016. Hernandez can at least find some solace in the fact that his best secondary offering, his changeup, maintained effectiveness. His change, which came in with only 3.5 mph less velocity than his four-seamer but with substantial sink, generated ground balls on two-thirds of balls put in play, and held opposing hitters to a .172 batting average.
Still, Hernandez’s repertoire was significantly worsened in 2016, and it showed in ways other than just opposing hitters’ batting averages. He generated many less whiffs, as his slider, curve, and changeup all saw their whiffs per swing rates drop by at least six percent. Notably, he seemed to be less deceptive. A decent measure of deceptiveness is the disparity between the rate opposing hitters swing at pitches in the zone and the rate at which they swing at pitches outside of the zone. According to FanGraphs’ plate discipline data, Fernandez’s zone swing rate minus his outside of zone swing rate was nearly 36%, the highest such disparity since 2009.
Hitters had a much easier time deciding when to swing at a pitch in the zone and when to lay off on junk outside of the zone, and they also had more success making contact once they decided to swing. Hernandez’s out of zone contact rate of 62.5% was the second highest of his career, and his in-zone contact rate of 90.8% was the highest of his career.
With a diminished arsenal, Hernandez seemed more reticent to attack hitters. When he could still unleash a terrifying fastball near 100 mph, Hernandez pounded the strike zone at will. Early in his career, Hernandez would throw over 50% of his pitches in the strike zone. Last year, his zone percentage fell to a career-low 40.5%, indicating Hernandez was much less eager to come in the strike zone against hitters who no longer had any problem catching up to his heat.
All this paints a picture of a pitcher who has lost his best stuff and wasn’t quite able to find adequate ways to adjust. Now, Hernandez was only a few years ago one of the best pitchers in the game, finishing second in AL Cy Young voting to Corey Kluber in 2014. Hernandez has had a great career, and if he finds a way to overcome his loss of velocity, it won’t be a shock.
But the signs of decline, as well as the evaluations of more advanced metrics, are too troubling to ignore. Most notably, Baseball Prospectus’ DRA, which goes far beyond statistics like ERA or FIP in how it adjusts for things like opponent quality, league, and park, sees Hernandez as a well below average pitcher. Hernandez’s 2016 DRA of 4.71 was by far the worst of his career, as DRA actually evaluated Hernandez’s pre-2016 career as Hall of Fame worthy. By DRA, Hernandez had totaled over 75 WARP over his first eleven years, but just 1.1 last year.
Hernandez has long been one of baseball’s best pitchers. Watching him take the ball every fifth day has easily been the best thing about the Mariners during their league-long playoff drought. If 2016 proves to be the beginning of a new era for Hernandez, it would be a shame, but his genuine drop in performance means that the old King Felix very well may never come back. A bounce back for Hernandez is worth rooting for, but it doesn’t seem like something worth counting on.