The Amazing Consistency of Felix Hernandez

 Felix Hernandez has been the picture of consistency for the Seattle Mariners. He’s made at least 30 starts in every season since 2006 and his only DL trip resulted from an ankle injury suffered in 2008. In the last five seasons, his xFIP- has ranged from 67 to 78. His contract, which calls for him to earn $25 million a year through the 2019 season with a team option for 2020, is looking like a bargain.

It’s easy to forget that the Mariners ace won’t turn 28 until April but he’s already compiled 41.2 fWAR. Here’s a look at how that stacks up with other pitchers their age-27 season. Going back to 1974, here’s the five best pitchers through age-27.

Pitcher IP K% BB% fWAR
Dwight Gooden 1919.2 21.5 7.3 46.9
Roger Clemens 1513.0 23.1 6.9 46.8
Felix Hernandez 1824.2 22.7 7.0 41.2
Pedro Martinez 1359.1 28.0 7.5 40.4
Bret Saberhagen 1660.1 16.3 4.9 39.8

Impressive. Of course it’s not all gravy on the list. Pedro and Clemens enjoyed several dominant years after their age-27 season, but Gooden produced just 8.3 fWAR after his age-27 season, and Saberhagen only had one more strong year.  However, there are good reasons to think that King Felix will age more like Clemens or Martinez than like Gooden or Saberhagen.

First of all, Felix has avoided the disabled list. Past DL time is most predictive of future DL time, and his only stint was an ankle injury. While his innings were limited towards the end of the year due to an oblique strain, he hasn’t had any arm issues. Gooden and Saberhagen both suffered shoulder injuries that sent them to the DL in their younger years, and these issues plagued them later in their careers.

Unlike Gooden and Saberhagen who struggled to compensate for decreased fastball velocity, Hernandez’ velocity losses haven’t hurt his ability to miss bats. He doesn’t reach the upper 90s or triple digits like he used to, but that doesn’t mean hitters have figured him out.

Year FBv SwStr%
2007 95.6 9.8
2008 94.6 8.8
2009 94.0 10.6
2010 94.1 9.9
2011 93.3 8.8
2012 92.1 10.6
2013 91.9 10.7

He’s compensated for diminishing fastball velocity by adding more movement. As his four-seamer has slowed down, he’s throwing more two-seam fastballs, and the pitch has produced an excellent groundball rate. The fact that Hernandez can be just as successful without a dominant fastball bodes well for the latter years of his contract.

A big reason why Hernandez has been successful is the improvement and increasing reliance on his changeup, which is one of the best in the game. In 2013, he utilized the change more frequently than in any other year.

Year CH% Whiff%
2007 9.9 14.8
2008 13.3 13.6
2009 13.6 15.7
2010 15.3 21.1
2011 21.5 16.1
2012 18.0 15.7
2013 23.0 14.3

Coincidence or not, Hernandez posted career-best strikeout and walk rates in 2013. When batters do put the change in play, it has a 60 percent groundball rate. Not only is the changeup a devastating pitch for Hernandez, it’s one of the easiest pitches on the arm. Of the top ten pitchers in innings pitched since 2007, Dan Haren is the only hurler does not throw a changeup on at least 13 percent of their pitches. His curveball and slider are excellent pitches as well, but the development of the changeup separates him from other very good pitchers whose reliance on a breaking ball has taken a toll on their arm.

Felix has always had dominant stuff, but the development of his secondary pitches and his improved command are good indicators of future excellence, even as he ages. The careers of Gooden and Saberhagen demonstrate that past greatness doesn’t always translate into future greatness. However, nearly all signs point to more great years of King Felix. The only red flag, his decreasing fastball velocity, hasn’t resulted in any decline yet.

Finally, here’s the five year Oliver projection for Hernandez.

Season K/9 BB/9 fWAR
2014 8.8 2.1 5.9
2015 8.9 2.1 5.9
2016 8.9 2.1 5.8
2017 8.9 2.0 5.8
2018 8.9 2.0 5.6

Sure, asking even the best projection to look five years into the future is a tall task. These numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s a more encouraging outlook than that of other ace pitchers. King Felix just might be wearing his crown for years to come.

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Chris Moran

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20 Comments

  1. As I mentioned elsewhere I’m not a fan of signing Cruz.

    Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker says other than Tanaka it doesn’t look like any other players will be posted. Maeda has signed a contract to stay in Japan next season, he was the best arm possibly available after Tanaka. He might come over after next season. There are a couple of fringe possible arms available from Korea, one (Yoon) has Boras as his agent. Not much heard about them so far. There more traffic going to Japan and Korea now than coming this way. The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) has expanded by two teams (to 12) for next year, which both are allowed four foreign players, the rest have a limit of three.

  2. This is good for the Mariners in a number of ways. Eases the market on Cruz if the M’s do want him. Ties up years and money for the competition. I’m not sure how good a fit Cruz is. Would still like to see a Gardner or Rasmus type in centerfield.

  3. Rangers just landed Choo. Leaving many to believe that Cruz will be an M next season. Unless a new suiter shows up nobody has been talking about looks like the M’s may get there last big bat.

  4. Author

    You’re wrong. Here are his xFIP 1st and second half splits.

    2013
    1st half: 2.67
    2nd half: 2.63

    2012
    1st half: 3.27
    2nd half: 3.13

    2011
    1st half: 3.17
    2nd half: 3.11

    His 2nd half ERA was higher in 2013 and 2011 and it was lower in 2012, based on the xFIP, the higher ERA looks like a product of luck. So “by any measurement of numbers” is wrong.

  5. You know I am as big a Felix fan as anyone, but I have a question to all?

    What is going on with Felix AFTER the All-star break the last few years? I mean if you look at his work, under any measuerment of numbers, you will see some real concern- is he just getting tired/worn out? Is he just getting tired of losing? What the heck is it?

    I am not asking this for anyone to flame me, just wondering what any of you think.

    M.M.

  6. Agree with your shopping list idea, all except the innings eaters. But I would take that over putting Walker/Paxton/Ramirez/Maurer in the #4 and #5 slots. I think two rookies starting the season is a recipe for disaster. I think better baseball dictates to get one of them established and then ease in another. I just don’t like soft tossing innings eaters unless there name is Maddux or Moyer. We haven’t had much sucess with innings eaters either lately
    Might as well throw John Lannan and Bruce Chen on your list of knuckle draggers and why not Barry Zito or Roy Oswalt. I think Buck could fit in as backup C.

  7. I heard that there is no wat they are going to post Itoi because he is a favorite but also into his 30s and dont think he will bring much. Have you seen him play? He has a nice swing doesnt fly open like alot of Japenese players and he’s pretty tall. Using your backup catcher to pinch hit is not a very good idea unless you carry 3. How about Lorenzo Cain from KC ? They seem to have a glut in the OF now that they got Aoki,Maxwell,Dyson,Gordon. Do you think we match up with them anymore in a trade

  8. I know where your coming from and I generally agree with most of your ideas. I’ve overbashed Maholm and actually like him as a solid #5 on a NL team. I think his numbers will likely decline in the AL and he could end up as a Saunders v2.0, and I think the same for Capuano, who I wouldn’t sign as a #5 for a NL team. Can’t trade a signed free agent until June 15th.

    I don’t think the M’s can only make a few more moves. I think they are capable of many moves. My fear is that they, as in the past, don’t build a complete rotation, don’t build a viable outfield, and noticable lack of depth.

  9. Yeah, I agree. I think the shopping list should be as follows, in order of importance:

    1. Good starter. I think the free agent market is the best place to address this need. In order of preference: Tanaka, Jimenez, Garza.

    2. Outfielder. The ideal candidate would either be a plus defender in CF, a middle of the rotation hitter (ideally RH), or both. The one player I find really interesting is recent Cuban defector Rusney Castillo. The very limited scouting reports I’ve read on him suggest he’s a good defensive CFer with speed and power. He’s also a RH hitter, is only 26 years old, and is ML ready right now. Perfect fit. The M’s could sign him and let him compete for a spot in the OF right away. The other international player that’s interesting is Yoshio Itoi. Jason talked him up this fall, but I haven’t heard anything about in a while. If he’s posted, he’d be a great addition. Beyond those two (or in addition), I’m hoping the M’s can swap Nick Franklin plus some other pieces for a good young starting OFer. Even if it’s an advanced prospect, I’m hoping that they can add a long-term cornerstone player.

    3. Solid innings eater starter. Someone like Paul Maholm or Chris Capuano. Unfortunately, the other interesting guys with more upside, like Scott Kazmir and Josh Johnson, are already off the board. Like you mentioned, we could use some depth. I’d like to see two of Walker/Paxton/Maurer/Ramirez fill the last two spots in the rotation, but adding some guys for depth is always smart.

    4. High leverage bullpen arm. We could use another person to throw into the closer mix with Farquar and Wilhemlsen (the latter of which is a great candidate for a huge bounce-back season, IMHO). There has been a huge market correction against closers lately, and they aren’t expensive like they used to be. The Orioles are backing away from a 2yr/15mil deal with Grant Balfour over his medicals. If that falls through, he could be available for cheap. Fernando Rodney would be a good addition at roughly the same money. Other guys like Chris Perez, Joel Hanrahan, Jesse Crain, Eric O’Flaherty, and Carlos Marmol would be solid additions. From that latter group, Perez, Hanrahan, and Marmol could be cheap closer candidates. The way the market is going right now, a lot of these guys will sign for bargain contracts. The M’s would be wise to load up on some of these arms on one-year deals. If they work out, great: they’ll either help the team contend or be great trade chips. If not, who cares?

    5. Backup catcher. You know…..its too bad that the M’s can’t find a LH hitter who can serve as a backup catcher and pinch hit a bit, and platoon with Zunino…..maybe someone like……I dunno…..JOHN JASO!!! Why we traded that guy is completely lost on me. I’d hoped the M’s would look into Ryan Doumit, too, as he’s the same type of player. I would love to see the M’s make a deal with LA for Hank Conger. He’d be perfect. Jaso, Doumit, and Conger are all great because they can serve as backup catchers, but also provide help in other areas, especially pinch hitting. There isn’t much on the free agent market.

    If the M’s can cross those five things off their list, they’ll be looking great for 2014.

  10. Relax, it’s to set a bargining position, not to be taken literally. Some of you take things far to literal. It’s just GM speak.

  11. Anyone know anything about the status of Yoshio Itoi?

    I still think he would be a great addition for the M’s. But I haven’t heard anything about him potentially being posted.

  12. Given the damage caused by Saunders, Bonderman, Harang and the failure to launch of Maurer and Erasmo and the long term injury to Hultzen I would hope they see the need for rotation depth for the coming season now and not after spring training is over. Having lost Morse, Morales and Ibanez the new guys will be lucky to equal their dinger production. They can’t help but be better defensively and on the base paths, which is a big plus. Counting on all of Walker, Paxton, Maurer and Ramirez to be productive in our rotation in 2014 requires more luck than the M’s have seen in the past decade. I can live with the offense we have now if need be but not with just two dependable arms in the rotation. Although I’d rather do that than trade either of Walker or Paxton or anyone else for Price.

    I liked this: Mariners drawing strong trade interest in IF Nick Franklin with multiple teams involved, sources tell me and Jon Morosi. From: Ken Rosenthal at Fox Sports. Him we could spare if we need to but he’s got a future too.

  13. Nice article. I think with all the focus on what the M’s need to add, its easy to overlook what we already have in Felix: one of the best pitchers in baseball.

    Oddly, I think Felix is underrated, even by M’s fans. He’s definitely underrated by the national media, who often exclude him from discussions of the best pitchers in baseball along with guys like Kershaw, Verlander, etc. Its easy to overlook even the best players when the team is terrible.

  14. “I don’t know why people keep mentioning Maholm. He’s Saunders v2.0.”

    Saunders:
    2011: 212 IP, 3.69 ERA, 4.78 FIP, 4.38 xFIP, 0.7 WAR
    2012: 174 IP, 4.07 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 4.25 xFIP, 2.4 WAR
    2013: 183 IP, 5.26 ERA, 4.72 FIP, 4.23 xFIP, 0.6 WAR

    Maholm:
    2011: 162 IP, 3.66 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 4.03 xFIP, 1.7 WAR
    2012: 189 IP, 3.67 ERA, 4.00 FIP, 3.84 xFIP, 2.2 WAR
    2013: 153 IP, 4.41 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 3.89 xFIP, 0.7 WAR

    Maholm is clearly a better starter than Saunders over the last few years, save a flukey 2012 for Saunders. The difference isn’t huge, but Maholm has been a pretty consistent 1.5-2 WAR pitcher. His poor year last year won’t help him out that much on the free agent market, but that’s GOOD.

    The biggest difference is perceived value and cost. Look at the peripheral numbers: Saunders has a habit of occasionally pitching far better than his peripherals. For some reason, dumb teams keep mistaking Saunders for a solid #3 starter. We gave him way too much money last offseason, and the results were predictable: below average. There is no such issue with Maholm. He’s coming off a bad year, and is actually a league average pitcher. If the M’s could sign him for something like 1 year/5 mil, it would be a great addition. Adjusting for inflation, that’s just a little over half of what Saunders got.

    “We need a quality starter and Maholm has proven over the years he’s league average/below league average.”

    That’s not true. What we need is better run prevention. Adding a very good starter like Tanaka or Jimenez is one way to do that. But the M’s biggest issue in the rotation was depth. We had two excellent starters, then a bunch of guys who were terrible. As a #5 or #6 starter, someone like Maholm will help improve the club by dramatically reducing the chances that we get sub-1.0 WAR performances from 60% of the rotation.

    Besides, this isn’t an either/or deal. Its not like the M’s are deciding between Tanaka or Maholm. They could easily get both, and Maholm or Capuano is the type of pitcher that could be dealt in the spring or mid-season if Walker, Patxon, Maurer, and Ramirez are too good to keep down.

    The mistake you’re making is thinking that the M’s only can make a few more moves, and that adding someone like Maholm is an alternative to a major addition. Its a supplemental move, sorta like the signing of Bloomquist. The main difference is that Maholm will actually earn his salary.

  15. How do you know how much the M’s had to spend? The M’s certainly haven’t let it be known, nor do I think they want anyone to know. I’m guessing they will go after anybody they feel is the right fit. I have no idea what they think the right fit is.

  16. M’s had about 64 Mill to spend this off season.

    Cano 24 Mill
    Hart 5 base +8 Incentives
    Morrison 492K
    Bloomquist 2.9 Mill
    Gutierrez 1 Mill

    If Incentives are met that is 41.4 Mill leaving 22.6 to spend this off season. Enough for one more solid bat. Franklin, Ackley, Smoak and Saunders + minor league talent. Should net a SP and maybe another bat upgrade. The M’s are not done spending yet. Maybe we as fans get lucky and the M’s losen the purse strings a bit more for the right move.

  17. Author

    Thanks. There’s nothing wrong with Maholm or bringing back Saunders in a No. 4 or 5 role. Obviously there’s Felix and Iwakuma, and one of the big names might be nice. But the Mariners might not want to push both Paxton and Walker into the starting rotation to begin the year, and even if they do, they will limit their innings. So Maholm or Saunders could be serviceable in the right role

  18. Nice article Chris, ya got to feel good about the Oliver predictions even if they really don’t mean anything.
    I don’t know why people keep mentioning Maholm. He’s Saunders v2.0. He didn’t even make the post season roster of the Braves last year. We need a quality starter and Maholm has proven over the years he’s league average/below league average. Please set your sights a bit higher Mariner fans. I know we’ve been shopping for blue light specials for years. Time to add more pressure for the Mariners to shop at Macys or at least the mall, but enough Kmart.

  19. All this mariners out of money stuff is total crap. They went on the record stating that they will spend more then last years budget and compete with the rangers and angels as far as payroll goes. Having said that spending just to spend is stupid so you have to take what the players are asking and what your willing to spend on them. Right now that Mariners budget is in the 80-85 mil range (counting arbitration) and last years budget ended at 85 mil but was budgeted for 95mil.

    They have the majority ownership of RSN and whatever revenue that will bring is up in the air but you can guarantee that it will at least match if not flat out smash the 45 mil they were getting from the previous contract they had with RSN. They along with every other team will get anywhere from 15-25 mil. per year for the next 8 years from the national tv deal the mlb recently signed. This runs through 2021 and Im not sure how they determine the amount each team gets probably has to do with ratings or whatever.

    The mariners have plenty of money in which to work with if they so choose. That last part is the key IF THEY CHOOSE. I dont blame them for not going after choo at 20+ mil he is asking for or cruz’s ugh. They need pitching and there are still 3 “decent” starters left on the market as well as maholm who I think is being a little overlooked at the moment. With Tanaka possibly not being posted those pitchers should be on the move here soon. If the mariners dont make another move its not because they “ran out” of money to spend its because they felt that the players were not worth the money they were asking for. They have plenty of money in which to use for players its only if it makes the most sense for them.

  20. Mariners Could Be Nearing Payroll Limit
    By Steve Adams [December 19 at 11:01am CST]

    And there you have it.

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