The hopelessness and despair surrounding the regression of Félix Hernańdez might be fading, at least a little bit after he put together one of his best outings of the season on Tuesday night against the San Diego Padres.
Félix pitched seven strong innings allowing two runs on four hits and two walks with nine strikeouts. His nine strikeouts tied his highest mark since July 20th, 2017 when in a similar outing to Tuesday’s game, he struck out nine Yankees over seven innings. Not only was the strikeout total shades of a once utterly dominant King Felix, but he pitched deep into the game as well. So far this season Hernańdez’ pitched seven innings or more only three times, which is one more than his seven-inning outings last season.
This didn’t happen by chance or luck, as Hernańdez made some changes going into Tuesday night. The most noticeable of those changes were his pitch selection. Normally Hernańdez is a five-sometimes six-pitch pitcher. He has his sinker, four-seamer, changeup, curveball and slider, plus occasionally he’s mixed in a cutter the last couple of seasons. Well, he hit the drawing board before his start on Tuesday as he only threw his sinker, changeup and curveball plus two four-seam fastballs. A stark contrast to someone who was known for five deadly pitches. The chart below shows his pitch selection in various counts from Tuesday’s outing.
Ditching the slider makes perfect sense, even if it’s just temporary. In my recent article from a few weeks back covering the regression Hernańdez has experienced the last few years I noted that one thing specifically this year that was an issue was the spin angle on his slider. Although he received mostly positive outcomes with the pitch, he couldn’t obtain a consistent spin angle on the pitch which left it with varying levels of movement. While that doesn’t necessary sound too bad, he was basically playing Russian Roulette with the pitch, waiting until it didn’t move enough, or moved too much, and it gives a batter a prime opportunity to do some damage.
Pretty much eliminating the four-seamer was another smart move by Hernańdez. His bread-and-butter has always been the sinker, that sets up his infamous changeup plus he’s received pretty poor results with the four-seamer this year, 13 walks to 14 strikeouts and five extra-base hits in 50 at-bats as well as a .427 wOBA with it this season.
When he first started in the league in 2007 through 2009 he threw the sinker at least 43 percent of the time. As he gained experience and his velocity was still touching the mid-90’s he’d mix in the four-seamer more often, as high as 29 percent in 2012. With exception to last season he hasn’t used the four-seamer more than 19 percent of the time since 2012. The chart below shows how he used the sinker to setup his secondary pitches on Tuesday night.
The sinker was used at least 45 percent of the time in 0-0, 0-1, and 1-0 counts. And as he fell behind in the count he used it even more often in order to setup the curve and changeup. Another aspect to the success, especially with the sinker, on Tuesday was that the sinker velocity was up almost a full mile per hour over his average this season. Obviously he’s not blowing batters away like he use to but that extra separation in velocity between his sinker and changeup kept hitters off-balance. This allowed him to tally four whiffs(16.7 percent) and one called strike(4.2 percent) with the changeup while not allowing a single hit off of the pitch.
As much as the sinker and changeup were on in his start Tuesday, the curveball was what really made the difference. From the unbelievable command to his confidence throwing the pitch in any count and any location. Of all the counts Hernańdez saw, only the 2-0 and 3-1 counts saw the curveball absent. He threw it 34.7 percent of the time, almost more than he threw the sinker. It brought incredible results too, 13 called strikes(37.1 percent) and seven whiffs(20 percent) while only allowing a single hit off of the pitch. The chart below shows the called strikes for the curveball on Tuesday, just to get an idea of how confident he was throwing it, in any count for a strike.
A big issue with Hernańdez’ performance this season has been walks, particularly when falling behind in the count, as well as limiting damage with runners on base. On Tuesday, he allowed one hit with runners on base, which did end up scoring a run, but it was the only hit out of nine chances with runners on base. He also did walk two batters but he never reached a 3-0, count and both walks he was ahead 1-2 but couldn’t find that third strike in either at bat.
One at-bat in particular impressed me the most. His final out in the seventh inning he had 98 pitches, facing the opposing pitcher, Jacob Nix. He started Nix off with a sinker in the bottom corner of the zone. Then he came back with a curveball up about halfway up the zone but outside the edge of the strikezone for a swinging strike. The King didn’t hold back, after seeing Nix absolutely whiff on the curveball he came right back with the bender right down the heart of the plate for a called strike three. That confidence and mound presence is something that has sorely been missing this season from Hernańdez. If the pitcher’s spot wouldn’t have been up to bat in the top of the eighth, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Hernańdez come back out for the eighth inning!
Hernańdez showed a huge willingness to shift and adjust through the recent struggles which is a determining factor in whether a veteran pitcher facing hardship can re-emerge with consistent success. If he can continue to adjust and adapt before and after each start, he could quickly turn things around completely and dispel any notion that the King is no longer a-top his throne.