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Breaking Down Felix Hernandez

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I probably could've gone with a less ominous post title.

Everybody already knows the statistical story with King Felix - he's a teenager who's just blown through the minors, striking people out everywhere and putting up a terrific season in AAA this summer. He could stand to improve his command a little bit, but given his general unhittability, walking a few batters a game doesn't seem to hurt him very much. He's been compared to the very best, and right now, there's no reason to expect him to become anything less.

Pitching prospects can be broken down into three components: (A) performance, (B) mechanics, and (C) personality. We already know a lot about A - Felix has been dominant at every stop - and we have a pretty good idea about C - he's a little immature, as you'd expect from any 19 year old, but he has a lot of self-confidence and wants very much to become a terrific pitcher. What we don't know much about is B, because as often as we talk about Felix, we don't get to see many pictures or videos. Hence this post.

Courtesy of the Tacoma News Tribune, we get to see a Quicktime compilation of Felix throwing a few pitches in his latest start. While it's nothing particularly extensive (it doesn't even include the highlight of him barely missing a liner to the head), it does allow us to take a closer look at Felix's delivery. Begin the series of pictures:

Felix in the beginning of his windup. Fairly standard leg kick, if a little higher than usual, with eyes firmly locked in on the target (unlike with, say, Dontrelle Willis). The thing to notice in this picture is that Felix is perfectly balanced on his back leg, with no forward or backward lean. This allows him to conserve his forward energy and put more of it into his pitch. Velocity and, on a more basic level, success begin with the initial windup, and Felix is in good position.

Same position, different camera angle. Felix reaches almost straight back with his throwing hand (as opposed to Joel Pineiro, who bends back and reaches to the ground at a more downward angle), only a little behind his shoulder. Rather than occupying the plane between home plate and second base, Felix's throwing hand and his glove are in a parallel plane slightly to the first base side, a position similar to CC Sabathia's at the same point during his delivery. Something else the two of them have in common: big bellies. If Felix didn't reach back behind his shoulder, his weight might just cause him to tumble forward. So, while it's a bit of a hitch in the windup, consider it a necessary component.

Now Felix is beginning his forward motion. Here, you can spot a few more glaring problems: his stride is short, his hips are out in front of his throwing arm, and his head is way out of position, with his chin pointing almost directly at the catcher. You'll notice that Felix also has his glove tucked into his side. A lot of pitching coaches teach you to do this - they figure that, by retracting the glove arm during the windup, you bring that shoulder back and force the other one forward, increasing the speed at which your throwing arm rotates around to face the plate. The problem with this is that it's almost entirely isolated in the shoulders, and it forces you to throw across your body as your arm tries to play catch-up with the opposite shoulder. With Felix's short stride, the across-the-body issue is only emphasized. Most of a pitcher's velocity comes from his lower body, not his arm, so having Felix put so much instant stress on his right elbow seems like an unnecessary risk. Better for him to fall towards his glove after release, rather than tucking it into his side.

Now it's starting to look a little better. Despite an early hitch, Felix's right elbow is now locked in with his hips, and the full-body rotation is what makes him throw so hard. Problems apparent here are that his front knee is well short of 90 degrees, his back leg is about to come up prior to delivery, his head is (still) out of position, and his forearm is back at an angle that suggests a little too much "whipping" action upon release.

Felix releasing the ball. The camera angle in the second picture makes it pretty easy to see how he throws across his body. Check out the way he leans slightly towards first base to make room for his arm. His back leg is just barely off the ground, but given that so little of Felix's power comes from his legs, this isn't too much of a problem. With his eyes now looking at home plate and his ruler-straight right arm in the 45-degree slot, this part of Felix's delivery looks a lot like Josh Beckett's.

Felix after release. Look how well he rotates his forearm inward immediately after throwing a fastball. That's like an instant stress relief for his elbow. Which, I suppose, is something every pitcher does, but it's nice to see that Felix is doing well in that department.

Felix bringing his back leg around and falling towards first base after release. This is what happens when you pull your throwing arm across your body - you have to compensate for all that force by falling in the direction of your opposite arm. The result is that you're in bad fielding position, vulnerable to bunts up the third base line (for righties) and liners back to the mound. Fortunately, Felix keeps his glove around where it should be, which is how he managed to block that line drive the other day.

When I look at Felix's delivery, I see a guy who generates a lot of his initial force from his upper body. The reason for this could be anything from "that's how he was taught" to "his midsection isn't in very good shape." The good news is that he gets the rest of his body in tune with his hips prior to releasing the ball; the bad news is that he still puts a lot of stress on his elbow and shoulder, which conjures some questions that none of us want to think about. He's a big boy with a high-intensity delivery, so there's a lot of force there being put into small areas. I wouldn't mind too much if that were cleaned up.

Is there a performance-related issue in here anywhere? Based on his numbers, I'd say he's doing pretty well for himself, all things considered, but the way he pulls his arm across his body and how he whips his head around are probably contributing at least a little bit to his inconsistent command. You can't hit a spot if you don't know where it is, and Felix doesn't have his eyes locked in on home plate until just before he lets go of the ball. Fortunately, it's a known problem, as we've been hearing about this since Spring Training (remember the whole hat-falling-off deal?). If Chaves or Price are able to keep Felix's head steady during delivery, that should go a long way towards reducing his walks, bringing him that much closer to becoming one of the all-time greats.

Until then, cross your fingers.