Photo Credit: ADean Rutz / The Seattle Times
King Felix Hernandez hasn’t been the same since the 2014 season, his first playoff race at the major league level, and it’s been puzzling to see the 2012 Cy Young Award winner struggling so much. Hernandez’s struggles are occurring at the same time that he’s seen his velocity drop off; his loss of velocity has led many fans (and pundits) to wonder if he’s done. But it’s not just the dropoff in velocity that’s a problem for the King, he’s also struggling with locating his pitches.
In 44.2 innings pitched, Hernandez has a pitching line of 5.04/5.33/3.96 (ERA/FIP/xFIP) while seeing opposing hitters post a batting average of .348 on balls in play (BABIP). While a high BABIP can be an indicator of bad luck for a pitcher, it isn’t (unfortunately) isn’t for Felix. The 31-year old pitcher has consistently left the ball over the middle of the plate this season, which means he’s given opposing batters better pitches to hit.
Leaving the ball up in the zone is very un-Felix like, and goes against his career norms. When you look at his 2014 season — where Hernandez held batters to a ridiculously low BABIP of .258 — it’s pretty clear that command has become a problem.
*Both heat maps are courtesy of Fangraphs
What’s even more concerning than Hernandez leaving more pitches up in the strike zone is that a significant number of these pitches are being left in the middle of the plate. As he’s leaving more pitches over the heart of the plate, his fastball velocity has dropped average fastball velocity has dropped from 93.6 MPH in 2014 to 91.1 MPH during his few starts in 2017; which means that opposing hitters are getting better pitches to hit from the former Cy Young award winner.
As for the relatively sudden loss in command, there is a theory that the muddy mound incident in 2015 threw off his delivery and his command hasn’t completely recovered from an injured ankle that occurred as a result of his first pitch to Chase Headley during the fourth inning.
At that point, it was clear something wasn’t right. Hernandez would walk five batters in the next inning-and-two-thirds (after having walked just 15 in 70.2 total innings up until that point in 2015) and give up seven runs before being removed.” — Brett Miller, Fangraphs
According to Miller, as a result of the awkward landing on his stride leg, Hernandez underwent several minor changes to his delivery throughout the 2015 season. Felix began to twist less, showing less of his back to the batter, and his stride leg became more angled. These changes occurred because he was trying to take some of the torque off of that injured ankle. As a result of these changes, Felix has lost his command and is now leaving more pitches over plate.
Unfortunately in 2017, we’re still seeing a similar delivery as to what Felix developed after the muddy mound incident. In this video from Bob Dutton — taken during a simulated game on June 2nd, 2017 — it’s pretty easy to see that Hernandez isn’t twisting, as much as used to during his delivery.
While it’s interesting to debate why Felix has lost his command since 2014, it’s clear that his struggles locating his pitches have been the biggest reason that Hernandez has been largely ineffective on the mound this season. Hernandez has to figure out his command issues if he’s going to become an effective pitcher again.