Mariners: When will the king return?

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 28: Starter Felix Hernandez
SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 28: Starter Felix Hernandez /

After Mariners starter and longtime ace Felix Hernandez turned in another poor performance against the Royals, I began to wonder, will he adjust to his changing abilities?

2015 is a good comparison to make with Mariners ace Felix Hernandez in 2017 because it was the first season in which his diminishing velocity began to show. It was a both a continuance and a start to a trend in The King’s career, leading to his current 5.04 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, and 5.53 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching).

In 2015, The King threw an average fastball at 92.8 MPH, and threw his cutter at almost the exact same speed, per Fangraphs. He also had a third pitch, a sinker, he could throw at around 92 MPH, plus his well-known changeup.

2015 was the last year Felix was the ace we’ve known for a decade with the Mariners.

Standard Pitching
13 Y13 Y13 Y157112.5843.1936736725112460.12215972873214706230283138101031253.331.1878.

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Generated 7/5/2017.

Felix has never thrown harder than 2015, and with his diminishing velocity, his numbers have ballooned. He won 18 games for the Mariners and managed to keep his FIP and ERA below 4.00 in 2015, but last season a few ineffective pitches and injuries led to a 3.82 ERA, his worst since 2007.

Borrowing some serious data from Fangraphs, Felix Hernandez’s fastball was worth 13.3 runs below average in 2015. He made up for it somewhat with his excellent curveball, which was 19.8 runs above average. The last two seasons, Felix hasn’t had his curveball to offset his fastball, which was 8.8 and 9.4 runs below average in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

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The drop from Felix’s average fastball velocity in 2015 to this season is only 1.5 MPH (92.8 to 91.3), but the overall results of The King’s pitches this season have been a concerning rise from a 16.9 linedrive percentage (LD%–a good indicator of how many balls are hit hard off a pitcher) in 2015 to an ugly 25.2 LD% so far this season. Hitters are squaring Felix’s pitches up and hitting a line drive a quarter of the time* their ball is in play.

The Mariners ace has been anything but so far this season, allowing a ridiculous .348 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against him in 2017. I suspect part of that extremely high number is bad luck, but if hitters are hitting line drives on a quarter of their balls in play against him, part of the high BABIP is due to a high percentage of hit-able pitches.

Next: Mariners Mid-Season Awards

For the Mariners, these numbers have to come down, or they could be sellers at the Trade Deadline this year.

*Slightly better than the rate Andy Bernard’s “beer me” jokes get a laugh.