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The Royal Curve & Felix's Arm Slot

Don't forget to sign up for the LL/USSM events in Tacoma/Everett in early August.

A few days ago the following passage showed up on Buster Olney's ESPN Insider blog:

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."

I won't quote the whole thing (it's only available to subscribers, after all), but the gist is this - out of concern for the health of his right arm, Felix and Chaves set about developing a new grip that would lessen the strain that the curveball puts on his elbow.

I'm always skeptical of these stories when I first read them, so I decided to find out for myself. Turns out it's entirely true. After his injury, Felix's old curveball grip was causing some discomfort. That's bad, so he and Chaves decided to change things up. Just as Olney mentions, they abandoned the old knuckle-curve grip in favor of a more conventional sort. It took some getting used to, but Felix says that he's finally gotten comfortable with it, and that it's far less taxing on his elbow than the original variety.

While changing the grip should help preserve Felix's elbow, in theory it changes the nature of the pitch as well. The new curve is a few miles slower and a little less sharp with its break. Those sound like bad things, but when I asked Dave if he noticed anything different in Felix's last start, he said he didn't see much of a change at all. The curve looked pretty much every bit as devastating as ever - just ask Jack Cust or Eric Chavez. If that's true, and the new pitch looks almost identical to the old one, then there's no downside to this. The same kind of terrifying movement with less stress on the arm? Yes, please.

This dovetails into something else I want to talk about (again). There was one difference with Felix's new curve - he was throwing it with a slightly lower arm slot:

It's a little less of an overhand angle now, which should give it more lateral movement at the expense of some drop. But more importantly, look at the pictures in the upper half. Not only has he now dropped his curveball arm angle; he's continued to drop his fastball/slider angle as well, to the point where it's almost more sidearm than 3/4. This is a clear and continued departure from his early-season overhand motion.

A few weeks ago, when I first noticed this change, I wondered why it was happening. Now I have my answer. Felix thinks that his overhand delivery may have played a prominent role in getting him hurt. By lowering his arm angle, he feels like he's reducing the torque on his elbow. He also thinks the lower slot gives him better command of his fastball, and while I didn't believe that at first, I can believe it now; a new arm slot takes some getting used to, and Felix appears to be getting his two-seamer back after a lengthy hiatus. That's good. Besides, even if the numbers don't bear out that he has better command with the lower slot (they might; I don't know), he thinks he does, and that kind of psychological confidence means a lot to a pitcher. When you're going to work on the mound, feel is everything.

I should mention that I was greatly relieved to find out that this was a conscious decision made on Felix's part. When a pitcher's arm drops and he isn't aware of it, that's often a sign of fatigue or injury, and that's the last thing we need to have happen again. Turns out Felix did this on purpose.

So from the looks of things, these changes are permanent. In an effort to avoid further injury, Felix has lowered his fastball/slider arm slot and changed the grip on his curveball (along with a lower arm slot as well, albeit to a lesser degree). The result is that he's probably going to get a little less of that crazy sharp vertical movement on his breaking pitches and two-seamer, but his stuff and command have nevertheless looked so good lately as he's gotten more and more accustomed to the delivery that I don't think it's much of a concern at all. Felix's repertoire on Opening Day was so spectacular that even if a fraction of its awesomeness has to go away forever - which isn't even guaranteed - it's okay, because he can afford to slide from an A+ to an A in the name of comfort and improved durability. It's not going to change his outlook as the brightest young pitcher in baseball. If anything, it might even make him better, should the avoiding-injury deal be as real as Felix makes it sound.

For as long as I've been keeping an eye on pitching mechanics, I've always been hesitant to suggest changes for talented young arms, because making said changes might take away the very ability that makes a pitcher so special. It's been the same with Felix - while I've suspected that his delivery was problematic, I never really wanted to see anyone tinker with it in fear that doing so might somehow might make Felix mortal. Kudos to Felix and Raffy Chaves, then, for navigating this treacherous pathway with savvy and grace, working to make his delivery safer while taking little of anything away from his skillset. It's a job well done, and the second greatest accomplishment for Felix so far this season.

Felix, it's just about time to get back on that throne. We've been waiting for you.