Sometimes identifying issues while watching video is difficult. Last Wednesday wasn’t one of those days for Félix Hernández.
Here’s the target for an 0-1 slider to Gorkys Hernandez versus where it ended up (prior to its ultimate destination: the left-center bleachers):
It doesn’t take 30 years of pitching experience to grasp why that didn’t work. It was a similar story on a cutter that lead to this Pablo Sandoval blast that knocked The King out of the game in the 5th.
Félix acknowledged his control was miserable in his post-game comments:
“Zero command of my fastball,” said Hernandez, who will make his next start on Monday at Kansas City. “I fell behind most of the time. When you’re behind and have to come down the middle, it hurts. And that’s what happened.”
Manager Scott Servais echoed that sentiment and voiced some frustration with Félix’s sequencing and mechanics, especially when he fell behind:
“It was the absolute extreme from what we saw opening night,” Servais said. “Felix is a pro. Things like getting into his curveball and some of the things we saw him do on opening night, he didn’t do tonight. He needs to get back to using all of his pitches and sequencing them up the right way. It just didn’t happen tonight.”
Considering the stills above, that’s easy to believe, but it’s still frustrating.
Mechanics are one thing. Félix’s interrupted Spring Training is a reasonable culprit for a struggle to maintain consistent mechanics, but regardless the inability to make a correction was crushing for Seattle. His velocity was even lower than normal, shaving his margin for error from a tightrope to an electrical wire. Both velocity and control are tied to his mechanics, which we can see clearly were out of wack.
Tightening up mechanics is essentially the primary role of pitching coaches and their pitchers, and considering how poorly he performed last week it’s assuredly been a point of emphasis for Hernández this weekend. The other half of the equation is more uncertain.
Can Félix adhere to a differently sequenced (read: sinker-free) game plan even when he falls behind in counts? Maybe. Can Félix put himself in a better situation to succeed regardless by getting first pitch strikes? Definitely, but he certainly did not on Wednesday. Can he cut out his worst pitch from dominating his repertoire? I hope so.
Félix threw 44.8% sinkers against San Francisco, or 39/87 pitches. That’s the highest percentage usage of his most woebegone pitch since June of 2013, and it’s not even close. If you’re not an reguLLar here you may not be as familiar with the disdain held for The King’s default fastball. The CliffsNotes are simple: the pitch has lost significant velocity, generates next to no swings and misses, and has resulted in much of his dingeritis over the past couple years.
Yet sinkers accounted for nearly half of what he threw last week. It seems, frustratingly, the sinker is still the King’s security blanket. 23 of the 39 sinkers against San Fran when Félix was behind in the count, which was in keeping with his struggles over the past few years. Both the total number (39) and percentage (44.8%) were dramatic leaps from Opening Day’s 24/85, or 28.9%. Félix still threw roughly 50% sinkers when he fell behind in the count against Cleveland, but he did an excellent job working in his curveball and changeup early to get ahead in the count, putting himself in more comfortable situations.
What made Opening Day such an intriguing outing was that Hernández both A. Got ahead of hitters early, and B. Didn’t resort exclusively to his worst pitch in those moments where the hitter was ahead. Félix’s disastrous start in SF doesn’t erase that potential, but it highlights how fine he has to be to succeed. It also magnifies the importance of sequencing his pitches differently than he has in the past. Félix still believes he is an ace when healthy, and perhaps getting hit hard despite full health can continue to catalyze him to embracing the creativity the organization seems to be nudging him towards.
We’ve already seen how even little things can make a difference.