With Improved Fastball Command, Felix Still King
Not since the days of Roger Clemens, Doc Gooden and Bret Saberhagen has a starting pitcher had as good of a start to his career as Felix Hernandez. But the curly-haired teenager throwing upper 90s gas who debuted with the Mariners back in 2005 would scarcely recognize the crafty 26-year-old who's set to sign a contract extension that will pay him the highest average annual salary ($27.1 million) ever for a pitcher. King Felix's fastball no longer sizzles toward home plate, but he has extended his reign with improved command of the pitch.
Hernandez's fastball averaged 94.4 miles per hour at the beginning of the Pitch F/X era in 2008, a mark bested only by Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana among qualified starting pitchers. Last year, Felix's average velocity with both his four-seam fastball and sinker was 92.4 MPH -- just a tick above the 91.2 MPH average for right-handers. Yet, batters didn't really do all that much more damage against Hernandez's fastball last year (.410 slugging percentage) than they did in 2008 (.396).
How has Felix remained so effective with seemingly run-of-the-mill velocity? By hitting his spots. He's throwing fewer fastballs over the heart of the plate as he makes the transition from flame-thrower to marksman:
Hernandez's percentage of fastballs thrown over the horizontal middle of the plate, 2008-12
MLB AVG for SP: 23.6%
Fastballs left over the middle of the plate tend to get thumped (batters slugged .502 last year) and Felix's is no exception (.525 opponent slugging percentage), so avoiding that spot is key. Few did a better job of that in 2012: Dan Haren (19.6%), Doug Fister (19.5%), Jason Vargas (19.1%), Tommy Milone (18.9%), and Jeremy Hellickson (18.5%) were the only AL starters who threw a lower percentage of fastballs over the horizontal middle of the plate.
King Felix, power pitcher, is dead. Long live King Felix, command-and-control artist.