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Entries in Felix Hernandez (13)


Investigating Felix Hernandez's Modified Arsenal

While much of the focus on the Seattle Mariners this offseason will remain on how vastly improved the club's offense will be with Robinson Cano now in the fold -- and rightfully so given Seattle's offensive ineptitude last season -- one aspect that cannot be overlooked is staff ace Felix Hernandez's tremendous arsenal changes last season.

With respect to value, 2013 was not Hernandez's best campaign as a professional. Over 31 starts, the now 27-year-old posted a 3.04 ERA and 1.13 WHIP (slightly better than his 3.20 ERA and 1.20 WHIP career marks) en route to a 5.2 bWAR, which was good enough to be his third-highest season wins mark. Yet while these numbers weren't quite on par with his Cy Young award-winning 2010 season in which he posted a league-best 2.27 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, Hernandez was noticeably better last season with respect to strikeouts -- hoarding a career-best 9.5 punchouts per nine innings.

As it turns out, Hernandez's increased strikeout rate stemmed from an abrupt adjustment in pitch usage.

Comparing Hernandez's Pitch Usage and Strikeout Rate, 2008-2013

The graph above depicts Hernandez's pitch usage since his age 22 season in 2008, dividing his arsenal into two categories: 'Hard' stuff (i.e. fastball, sinker, cutter, splitter) and 'soft' stuff (changeup, curveball, slider). With that, I've included Hernandez's strikeout rate, which is shown by the gray line at the bottom. A few things we see right off the bat include:

  • Hernandez's reliance on fastball variations (or 'hard' stuff, in this case) decreased progressively from 2008 to 2012, declining 5.8% on average each season to the point where he threw less fastballs in 2012 (46.7%) than non-fastballs (53.3%). That changed last season, as Hernandez reverted back to a reliance on his hard stuff, throwing fastball variations 66.8% of the time.
  • Consequently, only one third (33.2%) of Hernandez's offerings last season were 'soft' offerings -- nearly 20 percent lower than that of his 2012 campaign in which a career-high 53.2 percent of his offerings were non-fastballs.
  • Hernandez's strikeout rate has been on a steady incline, increasing from 20.4% in 2008 to a career-best 26.3% in 2013 (enough for a 0.98% average boost per season).

The question now becomes: Exactly what caused the abrupt increase in 'hard' stuff last season? Another look at pitch usage reveals everything.

Comparing Hernandez's 'Hard' Offerings Usage

This next graph shows Hernandez's use of his three 'hard' offerings (fastball, sinker, cutter) over the past two seasons. In 2012, King Felix utilized his fastball most often, throwing it at a 48.8% clip while mixing in his sinker and cutter at essentially the same rate (26.6% and 25.3%, respectively). Last season was a far cry from 2012, as Hernandez's sinker became his most frequent fastball variation by tossing it 51.8% of the time -- nearly twice as often as the previous season. His four-seam fastball rate declined slightly to 42%, and he went to his cutter at a 6.2% rate -- nearly 20% lower than in 2012.

Taking a look at how Hernandez's command of his sinker improved over the past two seasons, it's no wonder he went to it so frequently.

Hernandez sinker pitch frequency, 2012 vs. 2013

Hernandez's sinker command adjustments weren't obvious, but they were enough to make a significant difference. In 2012, Hernandez located his sinker in the 'down' portion of the zone at a 40.4% rate, and opponents posted a .396 batting average against the offering -- the highest mark against any qualifying starter's sinker that year -- to go with a strikeout rate of 7.4%, which was second worst among qualified starters. Last season, he placed the pitch 'down' 53.3% of the time and batters struggled against it, generating a .264 batting average while striking out at a 23.1% clip, which was second best among qualified rotation arms.

What we've learned is that when Hernandez locates his sinker 'down', as he did in 2013, the pitch is a lethal offering with a high strikeout capacity. Due to the offering's success, he reduced his reliance on 'soft' pitches yet increased his strikeout rate.


Liriano Thriving Low in the Zone

You could forgive Pirates fans if, upon hearing their club signed Francisco Liriano over the winter, they had bad flashbacks to Oliver Perez. The comparison wasn't hard to make: A tantalizing lefty with low 90s gas, a wipeout slider...and the aim of a blind-folded dart-thrower. Liriano issued five free passes per nine innings during the 2011-12 seasons, racking up a five-plus ERA and even getting banished to the bullpen for a time last May. Add in a broken non-throwing arm that wiped out the first month of his season, and expectations were low that Liriano would show the form that earned him All-Star status in 2006 and AL Comeback Player of the Year in 2010.

But Liriano is doing just that. He has punched out 39 batters and walked just nine through 29 innings pitched, and he has yet to surrender a single home run. The 29-year-old is keeping the ball in the park by pounding hitters at the knees: He has thrown 62% of his pitches to the lower-third of the strike zone, the highest clip among starting pitchers throwing at least 400 pitches this season and well above his 52% mark from 2012. Here's more on Liriano's prowess low in the zone:

  • Liriano is inducing whiffs 50% of the time that hitters swing at his low stuff, narrowly beating out baseball's strikeout king, Yu Darvish, for the best mark among starting pitchers.

Liriano's contact rate by pitch location, 2013

  • Liriano is also getting plenty of swings on low pitches thrown off the plate, as his 36% chase rate attests. The only starters with a higher chase rate on low stuff are Shaun Marcum, Johnny Cueto, Hisashi Iwakuma, Ervin Santana and Felix Hernandez.
  • With all of those whiffs and chases, Liriano is limiting batters to a .191 slugging percentage on low pitches. That's 12th-lowest among starters and over 120 points below the big league average (.314), though A.J. Burnett (.153 opponent slugging percentage on low pitches) still has bragging rights in the Pirates clubhouse.

Third Out Strikeouts - the inning's exclamation point

"He struck him out, and the side is retired!"

I'm not a fan of exclamation points but if we could ascribe a punctuation mark to an inning, it would be the strikeout that ends an inning. There is something both dramatic and discouraging about the end of inning whiff, obviously depending upon which side of the whiff you are on.

The end of the inning strikeout may come after six runs have scored which means it evoke a sigh of relief or discouragement. It may be the third (or even the fourth) strikeout of the inning, which invariably deserves the same number of exclamation points as there were whiffs, as in "He struck out the side!!!"

It's a great race this season for inning-ending strikeouts

Nine to Know

Great pitch location for Hernandez

Top 10

Let's up the ante - Inning-ending strikeouts with runners in scoring position

A.J. Burnett has had two strikeouts with the bases loaded and a 3-2 count!

Super Six

Pitchers who have ended the 9th or extra-innings with a whiff

Chapman has 41 Ks, 25 on pitchers 95+ mph

Elite Eight

Pitchers who have ended the 9th or extra-innings with a whiff w/RISP

  • Aroldis Chapman has ended seven innings
  • Fernando Rodney has ended six innings
  • Addison Reed has ended six innings
  • Mariano Rivera has ended five innings
  • Greg Holland has ended four innings
  • Grant Balfour has ended four innings
  • Craig Kimbrel has ended four innings

Two Sides to every coin

For every pitcher that throws an inning-ending strikeout, there is a batter who returns to the dugout with his head down.

The leader in that category this season is Mike Napoli, who so far has 27 inning-ending strikeouts.