Much has been made of the mix of pitches Felix Hernandez has used in the early going of 2018; especially since the Mariners made it public that they would like the King to focus less on blowing batters away and more on inducing soft contact and easy outs. The main way to induce weak contact is for Hernandez to rely on his off speed pitches and less on his fastball.
This narrative exist because Felix has lost nearly five miles an hour since he won the 2010 Cy Young award; in 2018, the fastball has been averaging 90.2 MPH thus far. His fastball still has plenty of movement, but hitters aren’t whiffing like they used to on pitches inside the strike zone. As a result, he’s seeing a higher contact rate on pitches inside the zone (93.3%) which is leading to more medium contact. But the good news is that Hernandez’s off speed stuff is still fooling hitters and the thought process is that if he uses the fastball less he’ll be able to get more outs and do good things on the bump.
The problem with this narrative is that Hernandez began to reduce his reliance on his fastball since 2014 — back when Lloyd McClendon was his manager.
*Denotes season still in progress
Arguably Hernandez’s best season occurred the first season he used his fastball less than 50% of the time (2014). It’s surprising to see that Felix had already begun to reduce his fastball usage before age caught up to him, but the veteran starter has still struggled to fight off the effects of aging.
Felix’s command is the biggest concern for me this season, just like it was last year. The good news is that Hernandez has been finding the strike zone more in 2018…he’s just leaving pitches in the middle of it.
If he’s going to be relying on his off speed stuff, he needs to be living on the edges of the zone…he can’t be leaving breaking balls in the middle of the plate. The offense’s in the AL West — really, the rest of baseball — are going to be just too good for him to get away with that for very long.
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