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How to watch a Felix start this spring

The King is in the south, and it’ll be hard to know anything today.

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MLB: Seattle Mariners-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

375 MLB games started. Since his debut, Félix Hernández has accounted for just shy of two and a third full seasons of Mariners’ baseball. Much has been made of Felix Hernandez’s lack of opportunities to pitch in October. But while The King has made four starts already in his career in October, today he’ll do something even rarer. Félix is pitching in February for just the third time in his career. The first two were uninspiring. The first was a 2009 start, nine years ago to the day, against the Padres yielding two runs on four hits, including a homer in two innings. He’d go on to have his best (by fWAR) season of his career that year, and his fastball averaged 94.0 mph. The second was just last year, coming off his impressive outing in the WBC, and he worked two innings again with one run, three hits, and a walk. That year was just a smidge worse.

So here we are for round three. After the better part of a decade of dominance has ceded to over two years of frustration, Félix is, in the words of Jerry Dipoto, “ready to try something different.” One component of that is getting started earlier, but whether that will lead to results is murkier. Unfortunately, our eyes can only show us so much. Unlike Marco Gonzales, the intrigue around Félix is unlikely to be tied to a mechanical adjustment. I looked at Félix’s release points year-by-year all the way back to 2009, and while there’s been a slow trend towards a lower, more 3/4ths angle, there have been hardly any major fluctuations. Instead of watching how Félix is throwing, or even, likely, how hard he is throwing, we should watch what The King throws this spring.

Unfortunately, today’s game isn’t televised, so we’ll have to rely on Rizzs and Goldsmith, along with the accounts of those present for information, but what to watch for this spring (and this season) is if Félix, Mike Zunino, and/or the Mariners are willing to buy into a trend we’ve seen league-wide. Fastballs are getting hit harder than ever before, while breaking balls and offspeed pitches are making up an ever greater percentage of pitches thrown. Fangraphs data shows that while fastballs are faster than ever, they are a diminishing percentage of the total pitches thrown, even for starting pitchers.

Fastball% and velocities for Starting Pitchers

Félix has slowly followed suit, but there’s more to embrace. If you’re a frequent reader of LL, you’ve likely seen the drumbeat against Félix’s atrocious sinker in the comments and in articles. Nobody was fooled by it last year and as its velocity seems to slip ever further, it’s tough to imagine it having a resurgence.

Whiff Percentage by Year for each pitch
Brooks Baseball

But that chart, along with reports of Félix’s emphasis on a new cutter, hold some intrigue for this spring. Félix’s strikeout and walk rates last year were not dominant, but they were more than competent. Home runs were his undoing, however. Scott Servais attributed his troubles to “nibbling” and getting behind in counts early, forcing himself to throw hittable pitches. The numbers seem to bear that out, as 12 of the 17 HRs off Félix came in at-bats that started 1-0, per Baseball Reference.

Few pitchers drew more varied valuations from the various value trackers than Félix, as he was worth a pleasantly patterned 0.4 fWAR, 0.8 bWAR, and 1.6 WARP in 86.2 IP. Much of that stems from Félix’s shoddy FIP (5.02) and ERA (4.36) reflecting his historically unheard of 22.5% HR/FB rate. xFIP, which accounts for and normalizes to, among other things, a league-average HR rate, grants him a solid 4.03 xFIP, much like WARP’s core tool, DRA (Deserved Run Average), which valued him at 3.96 last year. All of this returns to the point that Félix was a pretty good pitcher last year, except that nearly 1 in every 4 fly balls left the yard. 2015 Felix Hernandez is nobody’s favorite Félix, but there wasn’t much separation between that guy and the 2017 version’s peripherals, save for the home run parade.

Game-planning doesn’t occur in hardly the same fashion during spring, but tracking the motion, the movement, and the sequencing will nonetheless be more interesting and useful than anything else we can track until the end of March. HR rates won’t be useful or meaningful, but every pitch will nonetheless be worthy of curiosity.