Watching Félix Hernández pitch in 2016 was miserable. If you somehow are reading this, yet missed all of The King’s starts last year, imagine your favorite pet suddenly having its hind legs stop working, yet it not realize they are essentially vestigial. Félix believed he had it in him still, and kept pushing through injury and faulty mechanics, and he simply was not much good. He redoubled his efforts to improve this offseason, and appears slightly stronger and thicker. Perhaps, with increased stamina and a slight jump in velocity, Hernández will rekindle the magic that made his starts the hottest ticket in town, even as the team surrounding him was colder than a Seattle March.
While he works an above-average four-seam, sinker, curveball, and occasionally a slider, Hernández’s dominance over the last decade can be most clearly tied to one pitch: his changeup. Since Fangraphs started measuring pitch values roughly two decades ago, only Cole Hamels has accrued more value with a cambio than The King. Since 2008, when Hernández began throwing his unique version of the pitch, the 3rd place pitcher in terms of changeup value is closer to the 61st-best than they are to Félix in 2nd place.
The nature of Félix’s changeup is, of course, unique. The two most important factors in a successful changeup are throwing it with the same motion as your main fastball and producing a significant velocity gap between those two pitches. Conventional wisdom decrees an 8-10 mph difference as an acceptable point at which a changeup becomes a useful pitch. In theory, the greater the gap the better, but it's incredibly difficult to deceptively replicate the motion of a fastball and generate a dramatically different velocity using, essentially, only one extra finger of pressure on the baseball (Fernando Rodney has made an entire career out of a 13 mph difference between his fastball and changeup). On the other end of the spectrum, however, a changeup that is only 4-6 mph slower than a fastball is, generally, just a bad fastball, and is punished by hitters as such.
That is, of course, unless you're Félix.
The 3-4 mph difference between Félix’s change and his fastballs has not mattered, as he has cultivated a pitch with elite movement, precise location, and has been able to threaten with his fastball enough to entice more swings and misses than a Nick Viall dating seminar. As we looked at near the end of last season, and many others have spoken on in-depth and at length, most recently Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer, Félix’s declining fastball velocity not only threatens his heater’s effectiveness, it shrinks his room for error and confidence with the rest of his arsenal.
All of this brings us to last week’s start against Puerto Rico. Hernández started strong, with two shutout innings - a rare commodity at the stadium in Jalisco, which sits a humidifier-free 5,000+ feet above sea level. Unfortunately, in the third inning, a misplayed fly ball by Carlos Gonzalez in right field spiraled out of control, and Hernández left in disgust, unable to record a third out in the 3rd. That is unfortunate, but was not what stood out to me. This video did stand out, however.
This is a changeup. It is one of many Hernández threw Friday night, and while they did not all result in strikeouts, they were all one thing:
Hernández has not thrown changeups that speed since 2006, and back then it was nothing like the weapon of bat destruction that it’s become over the following decade. Is this real? And what does it mean?
Hernández’s fastballs ranged from 89-92 mph by the listed radar gun during the game. While it's certainly possible that the radar gun was off, it would be strange to get his fastballs correct, yet miss only the changes. Another possibility is that these were sliders, but considering the movement and frequency of usage of this mystery 84 mph pitch, it seems inarguably to be a changeup. Gameday info for the game has pitch location but not velocity, so we must work with this limited data.The numbers conflict with what BrooksBaseball has on Hernández’s lone tracked Spring Training start, where they recorded his changeup at around 87 mph.
For all the fretting about Félix’s lost fastball velocity, what is most important is the ability for Hernández to effectively set up and utilize his offspeed pitches. Increasing his fastball’s velocity would be the best way of improving his situation, but if he's found a way to maintain the movement and location of his changeup, while dropping velocity, he can reap many of the same benefits that traditional changeup pitchers have for a century.
This is all potentially meaningless if a couple things happen: Hernández still can't locate his fastball effectively, the Jalisco radar gun was in fact off, and/or it was just a real but singular event. Fortunately, tonight we will be able to know with more certainty. Hernández starts at 6 PM PT against the USA at PetCo Park in San Diego. The velocity will be tracked and displayed. Pitch/FX should be working. Gameday should be fully functional. We've spent a year and a half watching each Félix start looking for glimmers of hope, and tonight we have something uniquely intriguing to look at.
Don't worry about the results, watch the glove target and where the pitch ends up. Don't concern yourself with the ball as soon as it makes contact with the bat, but follow the sequencing of the pitches, and what Hernández throws in different counts. Check the velocity tracker on fastballs, yes, but glance at them for changeups and cutters too. Tonight, let’s all be scouts, because this could be something, or nothing at all, but we won't know until we watch.