Player highlight: Felix Hernandez

Sorry for being gone so long guys. I just can’t stay caught up with everything, especially with final exams now here. Anyway, today we’re going to look at Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners, who has been a popular reader request.

Numbers

YEARAGELAST FIRSTTEAMLGGGSIPERALIPS ERAWHIPDIPS WHIPK/9BB/9K/BBxGB%LOB%BABIPHR/FBLD%
200519HernandezFelixMarinersAAA1914882.25N/A1.25N/A10.194.892.0856.783.60.2775.614.3
200519HernandezFelixMarinersAL121284.32.673.291.001.148.222.453.3562.677.20.25711.913.7
200620HernandezFelixMarinersAL31311914.523.761.341.298.292.832.9356.372.10.31516.417.6
200721HernandezFelixMarinersAL3030190.33.923.631.371.277.802.463.1758.276.70.33815.015.8
07-1H21HernandezFelixMarinersAL141484.73.723.451.351.238.502.443.4857.577.10.34613.816.6
07-2H21HernandezFelixMarinersAL1616105.74.083.881.391.297.222.462.9358.876.40.33116.015.3

Felix Hernandez was one of my favorite pitchers going into 2007. While a 3.92 ERA was an improvement, it wasn’t nearly what I expected given a 3.76 LIPS ERA the year before and the growth potential of his strikeout rate. In fact, his strikeout rate regressed with a substantially low mark in the second-half. His walk rate did improve, though, and remained consistent in both halves of the year.

What really sticks out to me, though — besides the K/9 — is the HR/FB rate that has been over 15% for two years in a row. It isn’t uncommon for relatively extreme ground balls pitchers like Felix to put up higher HR/FB rates, but Felix’s is really high. Check out this table, which lists the league average HR/FB rates and that of pitchers with expected ground balls percentages above 50% and 53% (given at least 50 innings pitched).

YearLg. Avg.50%+53%+
200412.30%12.50%12.00%
200512.00%12.80%14.00%
200612.10%12.30%13.70%
200710.70%11.20%11.10%

So… yeah… Felix’s HR/FB is really high. Safeco isn’t really a park conducive to home run hitters, so I’d be really surprised if Felix posts another extreme HR/FB rate. Expect some good ‘ole regression to the mean in 2008.

Arsenal

First, an enormous thank you to Josh Kalk for providing this information. He has a newly improved Pitch f/x tool setup, and he kindly provided me with all the raw data so I could run some other types of calculations. I haven’t worked too much with the numbers, so I won’t try and draw too many real conclusions for Felix, but this will introduce a new feature to these player profiles that I think has lots of untapped potential.

Most fields are pretty self-explanatory. The only one that might not be is “SWG/BALL.” This functions similarly to K/BB, dividing Swinging Strikes by Balls. I have no idea if this is credible yet, but logically it seems like this would be a meaningful stat. When we look at the top players, we see guys generally falling where they should. Brandon Webb and Johan Santana are at the top for changeups, John Smoltz is at the top for sliders, Scott Kazmir and Santana are at the top for fastballs, and Tim Wakefield is at the top for knuckleballs (okay, that last one might be a bit biased).

Felix Hernandez
Percentage of Total Pitches Recorded by Pitch f/x — 71%

PITCHSPEEDBREAKXBREAKZTOTALPERCENTSWG/BALLBALL%SWINGING%CALLED%FOUL%IN PLAY%
Sinker96.9-6.076.68118456%0.1534%5%19%20%23%
Slider89.51.80-0.3844921%0.5138%19%19%12%11%
Curveball83.15.70-5.4728914%0.3536%13%22%16%13%
Changeup86.9-6.053.411989%0.3436%12%18%15%19%

League Average
Percentage of Total Pitches Recorded by Pitch f/x — 44%

PITCHSPEEDBREAKXBREAKZTOTALPERCENTSWG/BALLBALL%SWINGING%CALLED%FOUL%IN PLAY%
Sinker90.1-2.814.67N/AN/A0.1536%5%19%18%22%
Slider82.71.472.47N/AN/A0.3736%14%15%16%18%
Curveball76.62.53-4.10N/AN/A0.2540%10%20%13%17%
Changeup82.7-1.935.88N/AN/A0.3638%14%10%16%22%

Right away, we can tell that Felix was very effective using his slider and curveball this year while enjoying roughly average success with his sinker and changeup.

One of the things that we were hearing all the time this year about Felix was how often he relied on his fastball/sinker. While 56% is a significant portion, it isn’t astoundingly high. Here is a list of guys who relied even more on their fastball or sinker:

PITCHERPITCH# PITCHESPERCS/BLg. Avg.
Carlos ZambranoSinker378%0.230.15
Chris YoungFastball475%0.320.17
Johan SantanaFastball360%0.300.17
Ben SheetsFastball369%0.220.17
Scott KazmirFastball369%0.350.17
Tim LincecumFastball366%0.130.17
Rich HillFastball463%0.330.17
Justin VerlanderFastball363%0.230.17

The difference, obviously, is that all of these guys — with the exception of Lincecum — have much more effective fastballs/sinkers than Felix does. Felix gets a lot of ground balls with his sinker, but it does look like he could stand to move away from it just a little bit.

Another problem is that he relies on it far too often in strikeout counts. Take a look:

0-2 — 56%
1-2 — 55%
2-2 — 45%
3-2 — 74%

I’m not going to pretend like I know a lot about pitch selection and batter-pitcher dynamics, because I don’t, but just using a little common sense (or what seems to me like common sense), I think he would enjoy at least marginally greater success using the slider and curve more often in these counts.

I think reliance on sinkers in these counts could have something to do with his lower strikeout rate this year, since the sinker is the least effective swing-and-miss pitch in baseball (or at least among the classifications given). We can’t say for certain that this is the reason without 2006 data, though. This type of thing is what I’m really looking forward to being able to analyze in a couple of years when we have several seasons worth of data to work with.

I was hoping to write in this space that Felix became less reliant on his sinker as the year wore on and as he realized that he needed to mix things up. Unfortunately, he actually started throwing more of them in the second-half. Here is his monthly breakdown.

MONTHPITCHSINKERSTOTALPERCENTAGE
AprilSinker6212251%
MaySinker549855%
JuneSinker20339052%
JulySinker29852457%
AugustSinker27346459%
SeptemberSinker29452256%

I’d have to think that someone in the Mariners organization will bring this up to Felix and get him to mix in more off-speed stuff, especially with how effective they are for him. With Mel Stottlemyre on board now, he might be just the guy to get through to Felix. Let’s hope he is, anyway.

Mariners defense

TEAM+/-RKRZRRKOOZRKIF RZRRKIF OOZRKOF RZRRKOF OOZRKBABIP
Mariners -64 13 0.800 12 387 2 0.810 1 201 7 0.871 7 151 8 0.322

POSLASTFIRSTINNINGSRZRLG AVGOOZOOZ/(BIZ+OOZ)LG AVG
1BSexsonRichie9910.6550.741240.1270.135
2BLopezJose C12310.8390.830440.1030.104
SSBetancourtYuniesky13020.8020.816460.1030.128
3BBeltreAdrian12790.6680.680640.1670.139
LFIbanezRaul11140.8130.855410.1540.147
CFSuzukiIchiro13390.8930.888970.2100.137
RFGuillenJose12730.8570.877340.1110.141

From the look of it, the Mariners defense in 2007 was pretty poor. Felix’s BABIP was .338, and this is likely a big reason why. Still, .338 is very high, and a large portion of it came from a pretty ridiculous .346 BABIP in the first-half. The team BABIP was .322, and given Felix’s good peripherals I would have expected him to be below even that.

There will likely be at least a couple of changes next year, which might further helps Felix’s BABIP prospects. The Mariners seem intent on trading Richie Sexson, which could cause them to play Ben Broussard at first. He’s no offensive dynamo, but his .780 RZR in 2007 was well-above league average. His .107 OOZ/(BIZ+OOZ) was worse than Sexson’s, but it’s not like Sexson was all that rangy anyway. Of course, I’ve also read that Broussard has been included in some trade talks.

The M’s will probably turn right field over to Adam Jones in 2008 (assuming he isn’t traded) with Jose Guillen signing with the Royals. There’s talk Raul Ibanez could be traded as well, which means Jones could play left. Either way, I think there’s a good chance he’ll be an improvement over what they had in the corners this year. There’s been talk Geoff Jenkins could be signed if Ibanez is traded, and he too would be an improvement, bringing a much improved .894 RZR and an identical .154 OOZ/(BIZ+OOZ).

All in all, this is a very blurry situation right now and a lot of things can happen between now and April, but the M’s figure to be at least marginally better in 2008. With Jones in a corner, Broussard (maybe) at first, the potential for improvement from youngsters Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez, and the possibility of a free-agent signing or two, I’d have to think the odds are in favor of improvement. I think a .310 BABIP for Felix would be a good guess, putting all of this together.

2008 Outlook

So where do we expect King Felix to go from here? Honestly, I would be shocked to see another sub-8.00 K/9. I know that it was only 7.22 in the second-half, but his track record up until then was very good, and he has so much talent. While it seems like Felix has been around for years now, we also have to remember that he will be just 22 this season. He has plenty of room to improve, especially if he starts using the slider and curve more. And who’s to say that his fastball or changeup won’t improve? I mean, he’s 22 years old. I’m going to put him down for an 8.35 K/9.

His walk rate was very good this year, although if he does indeed use his other pitches more, it figures to increase a little. He had the most control of his sinker, so using his other ones would cause him to throw more balls and, consequently, walk more batters. I still see a 2.65 BB/9 as pretty reasonable.

The ground ball rate has been very good, but again, with a few less sinkers it will decrease a little. 55-56% sounds about right. I see a healthy increase in innings next year as he ages, and I think 210 is a good estimate.

When we put all of our information together, we would expect Felix to post an ERA around 3.50 and a WHIP between 1.20 and 1.25. Given an 8.35 K/9 and 210 IP, Felix would end up with 195 strikeouts. These are all very valuable fantasy contributions.

Unfortunately for Felix, though, he might not wrack up a ton of wins. I don’t see the Mariners’ offense improving all that much, and Felix caught some lucky breaks winning 14 games this year with a decidedly average offense. In fact, he received the 10th highest run support (6.29 runs per 9 innings) of any AL pitcher with at least 100 IP.

Extrapolated over a full-season, an offense that potent would score 1019 runs. The Yankees this year, the best offensive team in baseball, scored just 968. The Phillies, who were the second best, scored just 892. Felix certainly will not receive that kind of support next year, and I don’t see him winning more than a dozen games unless the M’s really make a splash during the remainder of the off-season.

Market value

CBS Draft: 13th SP
FOX Sports: 14th SP
CBS Sportsline: 15th SP
Sports Fanatics: 15th SP
ProTrade: 32nd SP
Yahoo!: Not in Top 20 SP
MLB Fantasy 411: Not in Top 20 SP

Conclusion

I was really looking forward to getting Felix at a discount next year, but it doesn’t appear that this will happen. He could easily find himself in the Top 5 pitchers in 2008, but if he repeats 2007, he could find himself in the 25-30 area. Given the rough estimates I projected him for, it seems as though his market value as a top 15 starter is pretty close to where I would place him.

Players like this I generally don’t end up taking. Why take a player at his full value when there are plenty of others who can be had below their full value? This is a talk for another day, probably January or February when we dig deeper into the principles of player valuation.

If Felix does end up falling out of the Top 20 in your draft, as some of the sites suggest he could, you could find yourself a nice bargain with excellent upside. Felix possess that rare combination of good strikeout rates, good walk rates, and good ground ball rates. Very few starting pitchers can do all three, and if he can fine tune his skills as he ages, I could easily see him as one of the top two or three pitchers in baseball for many years.

Final thoughts

Again, guys, I’m sorry for the long delays between posts. I’m going to try and get back on a regular schedule, but that might not happen until the semester ends in a couple of weeks.

I’ve gotten a huge response to the post about helping you guys form competitive leagues, so once the e-mails slow down a bit I’ll sort them all out and split you guys up into several leagues.

Also, I’ve had another couple of articles up at MLB Front Office since the last time I mentioned it, so if you’re interested you can go and check them out. They deal with DIPS Theory and HR/FB rate, which you’re probably familiar with, but if not it would probably be a good idea to read it.

I’ve also been asked by Aaron Gleeman to write a guest article for the Rotoworld Draft Guide, which I believe comes out in late January or early February. I’ll be writing about position scarcity and how to use it to properly value fantasy players.

If you have any questions or comments, as always, feel free to send me an e-mail.

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