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A Quick Note On Felix Hernandez, Again

so this is still in our searchable photo tool
so this is still in our searchable photo tool

I just finished watching the Los Angeles Kings win their first-ever Stanley Cup. I've decided that I very much want that for the Seattle Mariners. I don't mean I want the Mariners to win the Stanley Cup, although that would make for an amazing story, but I mean I really want the Mariners to win their first-ever championship. I obviously always knew that, but now I know it more, having watched the Kings clinch. If the Mariners are to win their first-ever championship sometime soon, they'll probably need a big contribution from Felix Hernandez. There, now I have tied the Stanley Cup Finals to this post about baseball.

Tomorrow, Felix will return to the mound to take on the Padres. Felix hasn't pitched since June 1st, when he wasn't very good against the White Sox. Before that, he wasn't particularly good against the Angels, and his season ERA stands at 3.42. Wait, 3.42? And we're concerned? Yes, we're not not concerned, and I'm doing a miserable job of getting to my point.

Felix's average fastball velocity is down, as everybody has known for a while. It's normal for pitchers to lose velocity as they age, but it's not normal for them to lose velocity as abruptly as FanGraphs says that Felix has. The drop of 0.8 miles per hour between 2010 and 2011 is more normal than the drop of 2.0 miles per hour between 2011 and 2012 so far. Felix's stats are still right around where they usually are, but the velocity thing can't be ignored.

Since spring training, when we first became aware of this, the team has practically laughed it off. "Velocity isn't everything," they've said, which is correct. "Felix is just learning how to pitch and he still has 96 in his back pocket," they've said, which might not be correct.

According to PITCHf/x, the fastest pitch Felix has thrown so far in 2012 was 93.7 miles per hour, on April 30. Behind that, a few 93.5's. Now, maybe Felix has just never had to get the heat out of his back pocket, but you'd figure he would've thrown it at least once if he had it.

Last season, Felix threw 614 pitches that clocked at least 93.8 miles per hour, topping out at 96.3. The season before, Felix threw 1,338 pitches that clocked at least 93.8 miles per hour, topping out at 97.7. Sometimes PITCHf/x isn't perfectly calibrated and velocity readings come out higher than they should, but that's not the explanation here.

That's a substantial drop in upper-end velocity. The fear whenever you see something like this is that the pitcher is injured. Specifically, usually, that the pitcher's shoulder is injured. Felix hasn't complained of any discomfort or anything, which has been encouraging, but Felix also seems the sort to keep discomfort to himself as long as he can pitch. I don't like to say that but I'm not going to pretend like that's not how I feel.

But there can be another explanation for this sort of thing. You can have physical issues, or you can have mechanical issues. And here's where I link to a Shannon Drayer post from the other day, about Felix watching himself on video, which he never does:

"I was watching film yesterday, and it looked terrible," he told me. "Everything, my upper body is up, I'm not finishing my pitches, not just because of my back. I went to the films before my bad back, and still like that. I am not pushing with my back leg, not finishing my pitches. It surprised me a lot."

Felix said that in those outings while he was on the mound it felt like he was doing everything right. The film showed something else.

That's bad, because it suggests that Felix's mechanics have been off, but that's good, because it raises the possibility that Felix's velocity issues haven't had anything to do with, say, his shoulder or his elbow. And when you look at his average pitch speeds, you see a drop for his fastball and his slider, but not really for his curve. (I don't trust the systems to pick out Felix's changeup.) You'd think that if there were a physical problem, all of his pitch speeds would be down. I don't know if that would be the case, but it makes sense to me.

So now Felix is aware of what he considers to be major problems with his delivery. So he's going to make adjustments, and tomorrow will be his first start since going to the video. I wouldn't expect Felix to have everything solved that quickly, but it will be interesting to see if we can observe any changes. Maybe if Felix smooths out his mechanics, his speed will creep up closer to where it was. Maybe it won't, but I'll wait to find out.

The way Felix has pitched this season, overall, has been very good. His strikeouts are there, his groundballs are mostly there, and his strikes are mostly there. But his strike rate is down from 64.8 percent the last two years to 62.8 percent this year, and that could be an indication of the tricky command Felix wants to fix. If Felix identified real flaws, and if he makes the right adjustments for those flaws, his results could improve, and his speed could improve. And then, Felix Hernandez.

Tomorrow's a big day, then. Tomorrow won't mean everything, as this'll be a process, but tomorrow's the first day of a new chapter. A new chapter that might look a lot like some old ones.