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Félix and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Homer Problem

The King is in some real dinger danger — but how much of it is attributable to rotten luck?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Texas Rangers Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not much of a secret that King Félix is no longer the same Félix Hernandez who won a Cy Young in 2010, or the Félix Hernandez who finished second in 2014.

You can blame lots of things for this decline. Félix is no longer the spry young puppy who dazzled baseball as a 19-year-old, and 10 straight seasons with at least 190 innings pitched means there’s a lot of wear and tear on his right arm. His velocity is down considerably from his 95.8 MPH heyday, hovering just above 90 MPH this season; consequently, he’s been forced to rely on his breaking pitches even more.

Though it’s hard to say how much Félix’s injuries have affected him over the past two seasons, it’s reasonable to point out the flaws in each campaign.

In 2016, Félix stopped striking guys out...and at the same time, started walking guys at a much higher rate.

Felix Hernandez’s K/9 and BB/9

Year K/9 BB/9
Year K/9 BB/9
2005 8.22 2.45
2006 8.29 2.83
2007 7.8 2.51
2008 7.85 3.59
2009 8.18 2.68
2010 8.36 2.52
2011 8.55 2.58
2012 8.65 2.17
2013 9.51 2.03
2014 9.46 1.75
2015 8.52 2.59
2016 7.16 3.82
2017 8.43 2.57

Uh-oh. It certainly seemed like a bad sign for the King, especially since his FIP ticked up dramatically to a career-worst 4.63, the first time it had ever been above 4.00.

This year, however, things have improved on that front. A year ago, only 40.5% of Hernandez’s pitches were in the strike zone, tied for 79th out of 84 pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched. That’s...not good. This year, however, he’s back up to 44.6%, which keeps him in line with his career numbers and places him 71st out of 134 pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched. Consequently, his BB/9 rate is back in line with his career average, and his K/9 is precisely at his career average.

But that improved control has come with a pretty major caveat: Félix Hernandez now has a bad propensity to allow homers.

His HR/9 rate, which stayed very steady during his prime, ticked back up starting in 2015. But this year, it skyrocketed from 1.12 HR/9 (his previous career-worst) to 1.95 HR/9, which ranks him 124th out of 134 pitchers with at least 70 IP.

Another way of visualizing this issue is through ISO, or isolated slugging percentage. Félix doesn’t come out so hot here, either:

Perhaps some of this is due to the league-wide homer explosion that’s occurring right in front of our eyes. To wit:

Even so, that doesn’t detract from the fact that the King has looked positively, well, common. What gives?

Statcast data provides us some nice insight. Here’s a table with Félix’s average exit velocity over the past three years, as well as his average exit velocity on fly balls & line drives and the percentage of balls hit at 95 MPH or above.

Félix’s Exit Velocity

Year Batted Balls Avg EV Avg FB/LD EV 95 MPH+
Year Batted Balls Avg EV Avg FB/LD EV 95 MPH+
2015 567 87.8 92.4 34.4%
2016 457 87.8 92.1 35.0%
2017 221 86.8 94.0 33.0%

Things look pretty stable, with one exception: Hernandez is allowing fly balls and line drives to be hit harder than ever before in his career. This number doesn’t rank him at the top of MLB, but he’s much closer to the top (or, I suppose, the bottom) than we’d like.

But it’s important to note that, even with the increased exit velocity on line drives and fly balls, there isn’t much else to indicate such a dramatic drop-off from 2016. Number of grooved pitches? A slight increase compared to 2016, but mostly in line with career totals and not at all indicative of this jump. Release point? His vertical release point is essentially identical to last year, and though his horizontal release point is down slightly, it’s not a drastic amount by any stretch of the imagination. Overall exit velocity? His rolling 50-game average is pretty similar to everything he’s done in the past.

Which leads me to re-examine his HR/FB ratio. This year, 23.5% of his fly balls have turned into homers, the second-worst rate in the majors (behind Tyler Chatwood of the Rockies, who pitches with a giant Coors Field Asterisk on his head). Since 2000, of the 3,824 pitcher-seasons with at least 70 innings pitched, only four have a rate above 23%, and only 20 are even above 20%.

It’s true that pitchers have a limited degree of control, at best, as to how many of their fly balls become home runs. If I were to step on the mound, most of the fly balls hit off me would fly over the fence; for MLB hurlers, however, there’s a high enough baseline of skill that a rate this high is mostly due to bad luck.

All that said, there are still plenty of reasons to worry about the King. His strand rate is at an unsustainable 81.3%, he has a career-low ground ball rate (44.0%), and his velocity seems to be permanently gone. But his home run rate will stabilize soon enough, and when it does, perhaps he can thrive. Perhaps.