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Félix Hernández learned to stop worrying and love the zone

The King of the K-card is living with contact and loving the results.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners
All smiles, almost all strikes
Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Félix Hernández is pitching in a way he never has before and the results have (so far) been fantastic. We’ve all paraded around the fact that he’s thrown 18.1 IP and not allowed a walk, but I have yet to get tired of hearing it. It doesn’t take a genius to see what the King has been doing differently, which is good because I’m writing about it, but it’s still somewhat astonishing. First, let’s look at the what he’s throwing.

Brooks Baseball

As Félix has aged he’s relied more on his curveball and changeup, while his fastballs have fallen from around 60% of his arsenal through 2010 to around 50% and, in the past three seasons, the low-mid 40s. This is common for pitchers as they age and lose velocity. So far in 2017, however, Félix has flipped the script a bit. According to Brooks Baseball, 30.2% of his pitches this year have been four-seam fastballs. As you can see on the black line in the chart above, that’s the highest percentage of his career. He’s throwing it more than his sinker for only the second time in his career, and going to his curveball more than his changeup for the first time in his entire 11 years in the MLB. By throwing his fastball more, the rest of his pitches are given a chance to keep hitters off balance.

Last year his changeup lost effectiveness, not because the pitch itself was worse, but because of a combination of overexposure and lack of variation. By making his changeup his primary offering, Félix allowed hitters to get comfortable with his best weapon, and made two-strike counts far less daunting for offenses. The other issue was location. Félix’s declining velocity was a ballyhooed bugaboo, but what did him in last year was his poor control and inability (or lack of confidence) to throw anywhere other than the bottom of the zone or lower.

That has changed this year as well. The King has changed his stripes, bouncing from a career low 40.5% Zone% (pitches in the strike zone) in 2016 to almost matching his 2006 career high of 54.1% with a 53.9% total so far in 2017. His 68.9% first pitch strike rate is the highest of his career, and over seven points above his career average. Just as importantly is where, specifically, those pitches are coming. On the left is a heatmap of 2016’s pitches, while the right shows 2017’s work thus far, from the catcher’s viewpoint.

Brooks Baseball

Félix still loves working down in the zone and out of it, but he’s not trapped there. He’s working up and in on righties, in particular. That can be dangerous for pitchers with less than exemplary velocity, and we saw Félix get tagged for a couple home runs in the first Astros series. That’s a trade-off the team appears willing to make, however, to get the King deeper into games and avoiding walks. In fact, this usage is precisely in line with what Jerry Dipoto set out for Hernández as a goal this year.

“[Felix] pigeon-holed himself to one spot of the strike zone much more than he ever has. He didn’t throw in very often. He didn’t elevate very often. He stayed mostly in the same zone all year long. And if you do the same thing to major league hitters, over and over, they will sniff you out.”

When Jake Mailhot and I previewed the pitching profile of these Mariners about a month ago this quote stood out to us. It seemed to tie in to an adjustment Hisashi Iwakuma made in 2016, where the traditionally gounder-loving righty began to use more of the zone and started allowing a majority of fly balls. Grounders are, in general, preferable to fly balls, since they are less likely to result in home runs and extra base hits in particular. When you can use all of the zone, however, you’ll get more swings, and more swings means fewer pitches. If your defense is good enough to track down most of those extra fly balls, you can stomach a few extra long balls in exchange for a drop in free passes and starts that go seven or eight innings instead of five or six.

It’s too early to say if this plan will work long-term. Perhaps hitters will adjust to nu-Félix. His hard hit rate allowed is currently at a career low 19.3%, which is neat but unlikely to continue. A 20.3% K-rate is up from 2016, but it’s still below-average, and usually pitchers don’t strand 89.9% of their runners, particularly ones who pitch to contact. The 21.4% HR/FB rate should drop off as well, however, and his excellent 2.68 xFIP forgives him the challenge of pitching in Houston. His health and mechanics appear miles ahead of where they were any point in the last couple years and he seems to believe in the plan this organization has for him. Friday night, Félix was so efficient that if you blinked you might miss an inning. The King has always believed himself to be the best option for the Mariners, every pitch, every night. So far this year, he’s given us reason to believe in him again.