Note: what follows below is pretty much simple speculation at its heart. Do not take me at my word.
We all remember the Royal Curve. It was a hammer curve, a curve with sharp significant break that Felix used to soil the britches of both lefties and righties whenever he felt like mixing things up. It was a dominant pitch, one of Felix's four that fell somewhere between a 70 and an 80 on the traditional scouting scale. It was beauty. As a man who's madly in love with a good changeup and deeply terrified of hanging curves, it takes a lot for a breaking ball to get on my good side, but for me, the Royal Curve could do no wrong. It was as if the pitch were made up of Bubble Tape and gummy bears.
Then, last April, Felix got injured. And upon his return, he made a few adjustments, one of them affecting his curve.
Mariners pitching coach Rafael Chaves recalled in a phone conversation Saturday how he sat down and spoke with Hernandez on a team flight about how the young right-hander needed to be able to throw a breaking ball. They decided to change the grip of his curveball. "Once we did that," Chaves recalled, "he has felt better and better."
In terms of keeping him healthy, the new grip has worked great. It took a little while for Felix to get comfortable transitioning from a knuckle-curve to something more conventional, but before too long he got familiar with it, and thinks that it's helped reduce the strain on his elbow. I'm not going to argue with him. Nobody knows a pitcher better than the pitcher.
But in terms of pitch effectiveness, I can't help but feel like Felix's curve has taken a step back. Obviously we don't have any PITCHf/x data for when Felix first came up, but the curveball he flashed on Opening Day '07 looks different from the curveball he's flashed in '08, according to both the numbers and appearance. Check it out for yourselves:
On the left is Opening Day 2007. On the right is Felix a few weeks ago. One pitch doesn't tell the story, but I don't recall seeing Felix consistently throw curves like the one on the left in a long time, quite possibly since before he got hurt. The one he throws now often feels like it's missing something - some kind of snap there at the end to take it from decent to devastating. It just doesn't look like the same pitch to which I so happily grew accustomed. And I don't like that.
I don't know. Maybe I'm just seeing things, and his curve hasn't changed as much as I feel like it has. And I probably shouldn't be upset about anything that a pitcher feels is in his best interests when it comes to staying healthy. But when I see Felix throw his curve now, I'm just not wowed the way I used to be. It's like that with a few of his pitches - off the top of my head I feel like only his changeup has made progress since his debut - but with the curve it seems the most apparent. It's troubling, but this is our reality. The good news is that Felix is still blessed with one of the best repertoires on the planet, but one can only hope that the little changes he has made to his arsenal for the sake of better health do not too dramatically alter his ceiling, because that is a world in which I'd rather not exist.