It’s no secret that Seattle Mariners’ former ace Félix Hernández has struggled the past couple of seasons. He’s been a shell of his once elite self, which was really first noticeable in 2016. He’s battled injuries since, which has only added to the difficulty to overcome these obstacles. However, the reports of the king’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Although he’s been moved to the bullpen, a return to the rotation is well within the realm of possibility and actually more likely than not.
In reality, the Mariners didn’t really have a choice when moving Hernández to the bullpen. A 16-year playoff drought forced Seattle to take drastic steps to keep them in the hunt for the postseason. Ironically, if they do make the postseason, Hernández will not be his usual self, something they normally would have counted on.
Let’s be honest. Although Hernández has not been a Randy Johnson or Nolan Ryan in terms of strikeouts, he was still the sixth fastest pitcher to reach 2,000 strikeouts. This season though, his strikeout rate of 17.9 percent is almost ten full percentage points below his 2014 season mark. Throughout this article, for comparison I use Hernández’s 2014 season, in which he finished second in the Cy Young voting, as a good benchmark for how recently dominant he’s been.
Most people notice Hernández’s gradual but steady decline in his four-seam and sinker velocity, which averaged as high as 96 miles per hour in his first full season. Even with the steady decrease in his fastball velocity, which has occurred every season of Hernández’s career except for one, it’s been far more prominent in the last couple of seasons- especially this year in which he averages just a touch above 90 miles per hour on the four-seamer and just below 90 miles per hour on the sinker.
One thing that’s not really noticeable without looking closely is the change in pitch usage. His four-seam and sinker usage have remained relatively the same, however there has been some fluctuation in usage over the past five seasons. His slider usage dropped a couple of percentage points and the changeup usage dropped about six percent. The one pitch that’s really changed in usage is his curveball, which is now being used at 26.7 percent- almost 11 percent higher than in 2014.
Now, a change in pitch usage isn’t necessarily to blame for Hernández’s struggles. Where he’s using those pitches is at least partly responsible. Back to the curveball: In 2014, he was able to bury it out of the zone and locate it on the edges, where as this season he’s putting a good portion in the middle of the zone. With his command issues, this has caused him to try locating secondary pitches for strikes more often. This has caused his called strike rate on the curveball to drop by over 12 percent because it’s being put in play more often.
Another glaring issue that seems to have affected Hernández’s pitch usage is the vast variation in spin angle on his slider. It’s seems from the PITCHf/x charts that he’s not able to get a solid grip to generate proper spin that he normally did. Although he never really had a high spin rate with the slider (970 RPMs in 2014), his spin rate has dropped to 612 RPMs this season.
Now, the pitch selection and location aren’t the only issues with Hernández. He’s also getting hit hard and taken deep far more often than he ever did before. His hard contact rate is 39.5 percent this season, over seven percent higher than any other season. Hernández was known as a ground ball pitcher; that’s how he kept the ball in the park and limited damage. However, that’s changing. His ground ball rate of 45 percent is a career low. Combining the decrease in ground ball rate, plus the increase in hard contact rate is a recipe for a 1.45 home runs per nine innings.
An additional huge factor to Hernández’s failure to succeed is his struggles with runners on base and in scoring postion. The chart below shows the changes in his wOBA with runners on base as well as runners in scoring postion since his dominant 2014 season.
Hernández with Runners On
With these aspects to Hernández’s external struggles, it has caused him to set career highs so far this season in ERA-, FIP-, xFIP-, SIERA and batting average against. He’s also set career lows so far in strikeout rate and strand rate. Probably the easiest way to surmise how much Hernández has struggled the past two plus seasons is the fact that since 2016, his combined fWAR of 1.8 is lower than any other single season of his career, including his 84 inning rookie season.
While these issues sound like a mountain of odds to overcome, they can be readily remedied with small adjustments and adaptations. Hernández doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, he just needs to focus on these areas that I’ve mentioned. As he slowly fixes these weaknesses in his game, we should see a gradual return of success and maybe even dominance at some point. The true key for Hernández to return to his once great self is to re-establish his confidence. Pitching out of the bullpen for a month or till the end of the season may be just what the doctor ordered for the King to reclaim his throne.