In just the last couple of days we’ve begun to hear rumblings about Felix Hernandez missing velocity and the implications associated with that. We’ve already seen this happen to Michael Pineda this offseason, and now he’s on the 15 day disabled list. I’m here to say that Felix’s drop in velocity isn’t something to be not-concerned about, but we should probably wait a little while before we start assuming the sky is falling.
You see, spring training is a funky measure of talent. Guys are trying new pitches. They repeat pitches outside of a conventional sequence not to see the kind of result they can get with that sequence, but rather to try to create the kind of pitch action they are looking for. So Felix has pitched around 91 mph this entire spring. And with no radar gun in Japan, it’s hard to really know how hard he was throwing. Worth noting though, is that Felix has pitched a much abbreviated workload compared to prior spring trainings.
Felix has thrown 184 pitches in three official spring training appearances, and thus the appearances for which we’d have data on Pitch F/X or MLB Gameday. He’s also pitched in a regulation game for which we have very little data. He threw 163 pitches last year before his first regulation appearance. This year he threw 127 (he threw 57 yesterday).
Pitch F/X called many of those pitches changeups. 20 percent in fact. Which is up three percent from last March. Were they changeups? I don’t know. The novice baseball fan may confuse a slow fastball with a changeup. But Pitch F/X is supposed to be at the forefront of analytics technology. Pitch F/X combines pitch velocities with movement horizontally and vertically to put the pitches into buckets. I’m not saying they’ve miscategorized all of Felix’s pitches, but considering that his changeup and sinker have basically the same movement, it wouldn’t be hard to confuse those pitches, or so I’d assume.
And what’s the deal with the changeup anyways? Throughout our upbringing in youth baseball we’re told that the changeup is the most effective pitch in baseball. We assume that our coaches and dads are lying to us because they don’t want us to wreck our arms throwing breaking balls. Then when we get to upper levels we realized that our fastball and bullshit curveball may not cut it, and give throwing a changeup a go. Why is it so hard to learn to throw a pitch that looks like a fastball, but moves much slower?
A lot of it has to do with feel. I personally learned to throw a changeup by basically warming up throwing it for a couple of years. It’s really hard to get a feel for the release point, and to get a feel for the grip. No matter what variety of changeup a pitcher throws there are two certainties, the pitch will be released sooner than his fastball and it will sit deeper toward the palm of his hand than his fastball. This forces a pitcher to do two things that are foreign to them, consciously release a ball sooner than your muscle memory says you should, and try to get a ball out of your hand cleanly despite choking it into your palm.
Felix Hernandez throws one hell of a change up. But he probably hadn’t thrown one for about five months when spring training rolled around. This is why pitchers throw pitches over and over again. And it may explain why his “fastballs” are a little bit slower. It probably doesn’t account for the entire drop in velocity, but there is at least a possibility that it accounts for some portion of the small-sample average.
For spring training Felix’s average fastball velocity is about three miles-per-hour below his March averages according to Pitch F/X. His curveball, slider, and changeup are all about one-and-a-half miles per hour below their March averages. But throughout his career he’s averaged about one-and-a-half less miles per hour on his pitches during spring than during the season.
I don’t think we should worry about Felix just yet. This is a weird spring. He’s had to prepare in a weird way. It’s not crazy to think that it may have had some weird effect on his velocity that has nothing to do with a shoulder or elbow injury, or even poor conditioning (though he seems to have lost some weight, which may be a cause of his velocity loss).
And even if he does have permanent velocity-loss, that surely isn’t a death sentence. Felix has four or five plus pitches depending on how you classify them, and really only one lives and dies on velocity.