Felix Hernandez and Solo Home Run Situations: A Blueprint For Longevity
Last week, Felix Hernandez was the focus of ROTOscouting’s ongoing look into the impact of Solo Home Run situations. Hernandez has maintained his health to the degree of throwing another third more Major League innings than the seven previous Solo Home Run pitchers combined (1983 IP for Felix versus 1469.1 IP). Part one discussed the importance of Hernandez reaching his late twenties without sustaining a significant injury. Part two looks at some other possible ways King Felix’s reign has lasted.
Solo Home Run situations started with a glimpse into young aces Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey, both lost to Tommy John surgery before reaching 250 career big league innings. Besides similar innings pitched, Solo Home Run rates, and the exact same number of starts, they are also strikeout artists, averaging over a punchout per inning. Likewise, Felix Hernandez is no stranger to strikeouts, but appreciate how his K/9 has changed throughout his career:
Season K/9 Total 8.51 2014 9.83 2013 9.51 2012 8.65 2011 8.55 2010 8.36 2009 8.18 2008 7.85 2007 7.80 2006 8.29 2005 8.22
So why are strikeouts worth noting? Solo Home Run situations is just a catchy term for one-run games, where strikeouts clearly restrict the opposing team’s ability to score runs. Fernandez and Harvey, like most pitchers, use off-speed pitches more frequently in strikeout situations. The crux is long-term health considerations of high frequency usage of breaking balls.
In all counts, Fernandez and Harvey use a breaking ball 34.6% and 29.4% of the time before jumping to 54.1% and 38.4%, respectively. Without looking into league averages, it’s tough to signal these two for statistical abnormality. However, Hernandez goes a different route, leaning on his changeup nearly 15% more with two strikes. The King isn’t alone in using a change-up as his out pitch- five of the top 10 starting pitchers by K/9 are on the leader board for highest change-up usage.
For the record, change-ups result in less wear and tear than breaking pitches. It’s a reason newly drafted pitchers are sometimes asked to shelve cutters, sliders and other pitches to focus on the proper development of a change-up.
Felix Hernandez suffered a forearm strain in 2007 and went on the Disabled List with an arm injury for the only time in his big league career. The Mariners were careful with their young ace, monitoring his pitch counts and innings before he proved healthy. However, one of the more telling adjustments Hernandez made was to his slider.
In 2007, Hernandez threw his slider nearly 21% of the time, but hasn’t topped 13.3% in any season since. As he frequently tops 230 innings in a season, Hernandez will still throw a fair share of sliders in a raw counting sense, but he’s clearly scaled back. (For additional context, Hernandez’s curveball usage has hovered in the low-to-mid-teens throughout his career).
Furthermore, Felix Hernandez’s pitch velocity has diminished over his career. Tracking PITCHf/x data from the 2007 season to the present, Hernandez’s fastball velocity dropped from 98.6 MPH to 93.8 MPH, along with his slider and curveball velocities as well. Curiously, Hernandez’s change-up velocity has maintained.
In spite of lower velocity and selective breaking pitch usage, Hernandez’s 5.5 WAR this season are the second-most in baseball. In fact, King Felix sits precisely at the same WAR this season as in his entire 2010 Cy Young campaign. Draw your own conclusions about why Hernandez’s K/9 rate has increased for seven consecutive seasons, but the takeaways are clear. For as immense of a talent as the King is and has always been, he has grown as a pitcher, learned some measure of self-preservation through pitch selection, and transitioned away from a thrower relying purely on stuff to succeed.
Felix Hernandez and the Future of Solo Home Run Situations
Solo Home Run situations have allowed further discussions of UCL injuries with greater game context. Some pitchers relied heavily on breaking pitches, known to inflict more damage to arms than fastballs or change-ups. And others entered the league with superstar expectations and struggled with the physical and/or psychological ramifications. Intrinsically, King Felix was no different from the pitchers in the other Solo Home Run studies. Maybe he made the right adjustments, or maybe he was just lucky.
Solo Home Run rates are meant to provide insight from a pitcher’s perspective. We would need to explore the “statistic” at a league-wide level to make broader statements. Felix Hernandez serves an example of a pitcher whose adjustments have led to better results and longevity. Pitchers like Hernandez allow ROTOscouting to continue the dialogue on the Tommy John epidemic in Major League Baseball from a unique perspective.
28 Jul 2014 / Ben Flajole /
Categories: MLB Analysis
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