Félix Hernández takes the mound tonight in the first game of what may be the most important weekend at Safeco Field in over a decade. This is the dream Mariners fans have had for years: The King on the hill, trying to help carry Seattle to the postseason. Félix has struggled with consistency in 2016, however, and there are many possible locations to point to as the cause. For Mariners fans, many of the concerns (age, mileage on the arm, declining velocity, exercise habits, The Elbow Clause™, etc.) are well understood. They are all likely valid in varying degrees, but I suggest, both with concern and optimism, we should also look lower.
Let me start by making a few concessions. I have never been a scout. My medical training mainly consists of taping ankles, applying ice. and First Aid/CPR certification. With that said, I do have a great deal of experience pitching, and plenty of that including pitching with lower body injuries. Additionally, there are many peer-reviewed studies showing the importance of lower body strength to pitching, as it pertains to increased velocity, stamina, and durability, and I didn’t get this snazzy liberal arts degree to not read long research papers on extremely specific things that interest me. If you don’t want to take some
nerd’s doctor’s word for it, we need look no further than Mel Stottlemyre’s recent work with Taijuan Walker as evidence that leg strength should be prioritized. In a recent interview with Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Radio, Walker talked about film he had watched of some of the greatest power pitchers of recent years, and specified how watching pitchers like Jake Arrieta and Roger Clemens showed him the importance of having a strong, engaged, lower body.
Pitching is a process that puts immense stress on the arm, but draws a significant portion of its power from the base. Inconsistency or weakness in the base generates a pitch with less velocity and a lower spin rate, as well as detracting from control. All of this is to say that Hernández, who has shown flashes of his dominant self in 2016, even with reduced velocity, but has struggled with consistency, may have a major solution right beneath him. Let’s look at some legs, shall we?
Félix’s longtime Cy Young rival has had a resurgence this year, including an uptick in velocity, owing in no small part due to no longer dealing with leg cramps that plagued him, much like those that have hampered Félix off and on since 2013.
Roger Clemens most likely had many factors contributing to his extended stretch of success in his career, but that does not undo the fact that the man had tree trunks for thighs and barrels for calves. We know steroids enhance the body’s ability to build muscle and heal, but a person still has to put in the work to build the muscle, or they will not derive a benefit. Clemens was legendary for his diligent workout routine, and the visibility of his calf definition is evidence of its veracity.
In selecting these examples, I did not intentionally seek out the most unpleasant individuals to make my case, but that is where we are. I would not argue that Schilling is a model for Félix to follow in terms of health, but pitchers like Schilling, Bartolo Colón and CC Sabathia have not made it this far in their careers without immense lower body strength. After seeing some examples of power pitchers who staved off their declines with improved lower body strength, let’s compare these men to our King in 2016.
I want to, as strongly as possible, state that Félix Hernández is 100 times the athlete I have ever been, and I am hardly looking to sit in the stands drinking a beer and yell at a generational talent about his laziness for not working out seven times a week instead of five. In fact, Félix, by most measures, seems to be in very good shape. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, even following his DL stint this year, Felix was exasperated with the caution that was exerted in his rehab, feeling that he was healthy and ready to go more quickly. It is purely with love, therefore, that I say this: Félix can, and perhaps has to get more out of his legs.
It is concerning that, including shin splints in 2006, and calf injuries (that I could find articles on) in 2014, 2015, and 2016, he has had at minimum four different lower body injuries, and lower body issues could easily be related to the back issues that shut down his 2013 season early as well. Pitching with a calf strain, much like running with a pulled hamstring, is manageable, but extremely uncomfortable and limiting, not to mention stressful. Félix even joked about his calf strength this year while rehabbing. When asked about it now, he has repeatedly insisted he feels completely healthy, and that may be true. What I suspect, however, is that this has pestered him off and on, and has played a part in his struggles with consistency and control this year.
It has been difficult to make more than conjecture about how much of Félix’s career high 3.85 BB/9 and career low 7.36 K/9 has been a result of some type of discomfort vs. intentionally trying to be too fine with his pitches to compensate for his decline in velocity. PITCHf/x data can, however, show us a few hints, and, if my conjecture about Felix’s lower half limiting him holds some truth, there may be some optimism waiting for us as well.
First, surprisingly, Hernandez is getting his second highest rate of swings and misses on his changeup since 2010 (16.7%), just above his career average. Unfortunately, this is likely related to the fact that he is throwing his changeup in the strike zone a minuscule 31.9% of the time. When the changeup is thrown in the zone, contact is being made over 4% more frequently than his career average. This is particularly impactful in two strike counts.
This is every two strike pitch The King has thrown in his career, every King’s Court chant and fist pump followed hurl, here in one chart. As most pitchers with sinking action do, he’s favored working low in the zone, or just out of it. Now here is 2016.
That is a lot of work in a few specific spots, but even the significant uptick in balls thrown far out of the strike zone is not so wildly different. Félix’s changeup is still an absolutely dominant pitch, but he is not able to fully utilize when it is not being set up by the threat of a fastball that could freeze a hitter for a backwards K. While Hernández is certainly still capable of flummoxing hitters, it is requiring much more effort for him.
This may seem like an excessively long, grim assessment of a player who we all already have fretted over for at least two years. I do not intend for this to be a discouragement. As I write this, I am (perhaps foolishly) rather optimistic.
Firstly, If much, or even some of what is diminishing Félix is related to insufficient leg strength and durability, that is both manageable in the short term and far easier to target in the long term. Secondly, for all our hand-wringing, Félix’s ‘"massive decline’ still has him performing at an above average rate.
Lastly, Taijuan freaking Walker and Mel Stottlemyre locked in and spent every day of the past two weeks together working on mechanics; I am willing to believe Félix will be able to adjust and improve, and remove stress from his arm in the process. He will rebuild himself. He will find a way to lead us.
We know he can handle the change.
All Hail The King.