Has The Time Come To Pass On Felix Hernandez? Don’t Be So Quick To Write Him Off…

by Eric Stashin (aka The Rotoprofessor)

Since 2008 no pitcher has thrown more regular season innings than Felix Hernandez and his 1,796.2. In fact there are only three other pitchers who are even within 100 IP of him:

  • James Shields – 1.773.0
  • Justin Verlander – 1,712.1
  • Cole Hamels – 1,698.0

Obviously the number of pitchers who have been consistent starters over that span is limited, but if we cut it to the past five years Hernandez still ranks third:

  1. James Shields – 1,135.0
  2. Clayton Kershaw – 1,128.0
  3. Felix Hernandez – 1,107.2

In other words there are a lot of miles on the arm of Hernandez, despite being primed to turn just 30-years old in April. That makes last season’s second half collapse all the more concerning as he posted a 4.48 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. While we can point to a few isolated implosions as to the reason for the bloated marks, are there some general red flags that can’t be ignored?

Velocity
It’s been some time since he was a consistent 95 mph fire baller, but his overall average of 91.8 mph on his fastball was a career worst. Maybe that’s why his utilization of the pitch has decreased in recent seasons, throwing it 43.8% of the time in 2015.

Instead he threw his curveball 22.3% of the time. That certainly didn’t factor into the problems, with opponents hitting a meager .135 against the pitch without a home run.

Home Runs
Speaking of the long ball, if we drill down on his fastball usage we see that he’s actually throwing his sinker (28.71%) more than his Fourseam fastball (13.56%). That further helps to explain away the drop in velocity, but what’s really interesting is the home runs allowed:

  • Sinker – 11
  • Change up – 6
  • Fourseam – 4
  • Slider – 2

The sinker is supposed to generate groundballs, so you wouldn’t expect that many home runs off the pitch. In fact he yielded just 5 on it in 2014 (throwing it over 1,000 times), so there is reason to believe that he can right the ship in this regard.

Strikeouts
Relying more on his sinker, it makes sense that his strikeout rate was “down” to 8.52 last season. He simply needs to change and adjust, given the workload he’s handled since debuting. He can’t simply throw the ball past people and while we wouldn’t expect the strikeouts to completely disappear, expecting more in the 8.0-8.5 range at this stage is justified.

Is that a poor number? No, but given the number of pitchers who can post marks north of 9.0 it is a slight knock.

Control
Having been one of the elite control pitchers the past few seasons, seeing his mark consistently jump is a concern:

  • First Half – 2.68
  • Second Half – 2.45

Again, no one is going to complain, but it is something we can’t ignore.

Conclusion
We are seeing Hernandez evolve into more of a groundball pitcher (56.2%) and that’s a very good thing. It does come at a price, though, as his strikeout rate isn’t going to be as gaudy as some others. Throw in the “regressed” control and the risk about the workload and there is reason to at least be a little pessimistic.

Is he a pitcher we’d love to own? Sure, but more as a SP2 than the ace of our staff at this point in his career. That may speak to the depth that’s emerged at the position in recent years, but that’s the “new” reality.

Sources – Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball

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