I have to admit, I was pretty surprised to hear that Félix Hernández signed with the Braves, even on just a one-year, $1 million deal if he makes the majors. He appeared to be washed up at the end of last season.
Félix Hernández might be the greatest pitcher in Mariners history (one could argue for Randy Johnson). Debuting at only 19 years old, the Mariners great played 15 years with the club, and in his prime he was considered to be one of the best pitchers in baseball, even earning a well deserved Cy Young award in 2010.
It was a notable win in the history of baseball, too, because it served as a declaration by the voters that they were no longer going to consider pitcher record anymore (he was 13-12 that year). He also threw a perfect game in 2012, the first in Mariners history, and oddly enough the most recent in MLB.
King Félix once appeared to be on track for Cooperstown one day, but sadly he declined pretty quickly once he got on the wrong side of 30. The once durable pitcher started suffering from injuries, which cost him in both playing time and performance. It pains me to say that he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball over the last two seasons, combining for a 6.53 RA9 and -1.8 WAR.
The main culprit in Félix’s decline is his loss of velocity. It was not an abrupt drop-off, either. He was hitting 98 mph when he debuted in 2007, and then slowly lost velocity over time until he could barely break 90 mph in 2018. His stellar changeup was always thrown surprisingly hard, but was successful despite the small velocity difference, thanks to its splitter-like movement. FanGraphs’ Jake Mailhot does a great job of discussing it here.
Pitches play off of each other, and even though Félix’s changeup might have still played if his fastball were still there, it just was not working with a sinker that averaged less than 90 mph. According to FanGraphs’ pitch values in 2019, Félix’s changeup was worth -5.2 runs and his fastball was worth -15.7 runs. Batters hit .363 and slugged .696 against his sinker this past season!
At such a low cost, Félix carries virtually no risk, but the upside is pretty minimal, too. Steamer projects him to have a 5.40 RA9 over only six starts, which is not a what a Braves team in a hyper competitive division wants. I would not be surprised if even his 90th percentile PECOTA projections have him as nothing more than a passable fifth starter.
The Braves’ starting rotation is in pretty good shape going into 2020, especially with the acquisition of Cole Hamels. Sure, it does not compare the Nationals’ rotation with their big three, but it should still be above average at worst. Félix will probably just be a depth piece here, or even a reliever. The Braves better be sure of what they are going to get if they play him, though, because any disastrous outings could have big effects on what could be a tight division race.
It is worth pointing out that the Braves are playing a series in Seattle at the end of May. Who knows if Félix will pitch in that series, but I am sure it will be a great moment if he does. It will also be great if he regained some of his old form in 2020. Seeing how much he struggled the past two seasons, I am sure we would all love to see him go out on a high note.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.