So far this season, Felix Hernandez has thrown a total of 1009 pitches. Every one of these (even the super rare hanging changeup) has been a gift from the baseball gods and should be cherished accordingly. Remember to appreciate your King! Of those ~1000 pitches, PITCHf/x informs me that 197 have been curveballs. That may not necessarily sound like too many, but it's actually the largest percentage of curves that Felix has thrown since PITCHf/x started keeping track of such things.
Every season since 2012, Felix has steadily employed his curve more and more frequently. His curveball usage in 2015 is up more than 21% from last year and has increased by 45% compared to what he averaged between '12 and '14. This difference is quite dramatic. But has throwing his curve more often translated into a greater amount success?
(Spoiler: It has. Felix is like King Midas, but in a good way, in that everything he touches figuratively turns into gold.)
Felix is generally known for his filthy changeup (and rightfully so), but his curveball is quickly becoming nearly as dangerous. This season, hitters are batting just .107 against Felix's curve. They also happen to be slugging .107 against his curveball in '15, because the King disdains giving up extra bases. (Amazing stat o' the day: Felix has thrown his curveball and changeup a combined 489 times this season... and he's yet to give up an extra base hit on any of those pitches. Wow!) In 197 opportunities, hitters have managed only three singles against Felix's curve, while striking out 13 times and walking just once. 67% of his curveballs that are put into play are groundballs and hitters are whiffing more than 41% of the time when they swing away (the highest rate of any of his pitches).
As such, Felix's curve has become increasingly useful/valuable. In 2014, Felix's wCB/C (curveball runs above average per 100 pitches) was an impressive 2.28. This year it's been even better, increasing in value by almost 25% up to 2.82. Felix has utilized this pitch against both LHBs and RHBs with great success, generally throwing the ball down and in to lefties and down and away to righties.
He does throw his curve more often to left-handed batters (25% of the time) compared to right-handed batters (14% of the time), but the end result has typically been the same. He's also been able to locate this pitch very dependably; it doesn't appear as though he's been hanging many curves (and even those pitches right in the middle of the plate may have been intentional "get me over" curveballs).
Additionally, this pitch has been especially lethal later in games. Felix has thrown his curveball 84 times during his third (or more) time through the lineup and has yet to give up a single hit.
It should also be noted that Felix is much more likely to use his curve against righties as the game progresses. His ability to successfully do so undoubtedly helps him mix pitches and regularly work deep into games.
All of this increased success with his curveball has come without any major changes to the pitch itself. Compared to last year, Felix's curve experiences 0.11 inches more horizontal movement, 0.35 inches less vertical movement, and is 0.19 mph slower. Pitching is obviously incredibly complicated and relies upon many different factors, but it seems as though Felix has simply learned to use his curveball more effectively (as opposed to making any tweaks to curve). It's amazing that in his ELEVENTH season in the majors, The King still continues to change and improve his pitching repertoire. I guess at this point we probably shouldn't even be surprised by Felix's ability to evolve and come up with new ways to embarrass hitters. It's what makes him one of the very best. It's what makes him special.
Thank you, Felix.