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About Last Night: breaking down Felix’s Opening Day start

What adjustments led to a dominant start by Felix Hernandez?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 season is just a day old and there are already so many storylines beginning to emerge. In their supreme benevolence, Major League Baseball has seen fit to schedule a day off for the Mariners the day after Opening Day. That gives us some time to bask in the glory of last night’s victory and ruminate on some of these developing storylines.

Of course, the biggest story from yesterday’s game was the return of the King. After year filled with injuries and diminished stuff, Felix Hernandez emphatically announced his revival. Not with a mid-90s fastball or a completely dominant outing, but with guile and a keen plan to handle a tough lineup. The final line: five and a third innings pitched, two hits and two walks, and four strikeouts. The contact he did allow was relatively weak and he gave the Mariners every chance to win the ballgame.

Against a Cleveland lineup stacked with left-handed batters, Felix came out with a clear plan to keep them off balance. It started with his command of his sinker. It’s no secret that effectiveness of his sinker has really faded the last few years. Over the last three years, opposing batters own a .303 batting average and a .251 ISO against that pitch. Left-handed batters have fared even better against the sinker, posting a .324 AVG and a .294 (!) ISO. Looking at the location of his sinkers last night reveals exactly how Felix wanted to approach these batters.

Last night, he threw 19 sinkers to left-handed batters and they put seven of them in play. Almost every single one of his sinkers thrown to a lefty was low and away. The average exit velocity on those balls in play was just 84.7 mph which resulted in just one hit—a line drive single by Jason Kipnis. The rest were weakly hit ground balls and a few harmless fly balls. He executed this part of his plan to perfection.

The second step of Felix’s plan included a healthy dose of his curveball. And it was a good one last night. The past few years have seen him increase the usage of this pitch to around 20%. He was up to 27% last night and it was a great change of pace weapon for him. He generated three whiffs off his curve—including a particularly nasty two pitch sequence to Tyler Naquin in the second inning—but more importantly got five called strikes with his bender. All five of them came early in the count and allowed him to get ahead of batters quickly and easily.

A quick note about his renowned changeup. The average velocity on the 17 cambios he threw last night was just 85.4 mph. That’s the lowest average velocity on that pitch in his career. I think that’s a good sign. Throwing his changeup in the high-80s, low-90s earlier in his career worked because his fastball still had great velocity as well. But as he’s lost that fastball velocity, the differential between his changeup and his fastball has grown increasingly smaller. If he’s able to get the same type of movement on his changeup with a greater velocity differential, that’s a great sign for this season.

One of the critiques of Felix the past few years has been how predictable his pitch sequencing had become. He would pump fastballs into batters early in the count, acting as though he was still pitching with mid-90s heat. In this excellent piece by Shannon Drayer earlier this week, we get the sense that Felix is finally realizing how much he needs to adapt and change with his diminished arsenal. We saw some of those things in action last night. The quick pitch to Bradley Zimmer in the fifth inning to get the strikeout. Better poise and control on the mound. But the adjustment that might have the most impact on his success this season is his ability to keep batters off balance by varying his approach to each at bat. Rather than relying on his raw stuff like he did in his youth, Felix needs to become a capital ‘P’ Pitcher, one who has a strong game plan and is able to command his pitches exactly how he wants to. We saw a glimpse of that new Felix last night and I think we’re all excited to see how much these adjustments translate to a season-long evolution.