Felix Hernandez probably didn’t surprise anyone last night, as we’ve come to expect those dominating nights from the King, but his outing was still fun to watch. 109 pitches, eight strikeouts to just one walk, three hits and no runs allowed. Those were the results, and they were good results.
But what about the process? We all know that Felix can’t sustain that .167 BABIP (3/18), nor that 100% strand rate all season. Felix will allow a run at some point this season—you heard it here first—but still, Felix reminded us of his ability to induce swinging strikes, strike guys out and reduce walks. His groundball rate was a little low (38.9%), but 18 balls in play is a small sample. Felix basically looked a lot like Felix, except one thing.
He threw what PitchFX calls a changeup 62 times last night. 62 times?! That was 56.9% of all the pitches he threw. I mean, it was working, so I’m not complaining. On average, that changeup dropped four more inches than either of his fastballs on its way to the plate, and it led to 15 whiffs (24.2%). For reference, here’s what he did in his first start of 2011*, in his entire 2012 season, and then in his start last night:
His velocity has declined, but I have discussed that at length already. What’s interesting is that he hasn’t thrown his changeup that much ever before. I haven’t looked at every single PitchFX boxscore, but I would wager that he has never thrown his changeup nearly 60% of the time in any game, except in his spring opener this year. I talked about that here, but I thought it was just spring playtime stuff, not real season stuff.
This could be Felix’s adaptation to lower velocity. He added a sinker a few years ago, and I thought that might be part of his evolution, and now perhaps we’ll see more evolution in the form of that devastating changeup. Since 62 changeups is rather strange, I perused the charts for other opening day starters’ extreme changeup usages. Turns out, Justin Verlander threw his changeup 53 times (58.2%). Turns out, Justin Verlander’s velocity was down. Turns out, Justin Verlander has a hard changeup like Felix. Patterns! While he only made it five innings, Verlander still allowed no runs, struck out seven and walked just two. His changeup was thrown with nearly the same frequency as that of Felix, though Verlander recorded a lower whiff rate of just four swings-and-misses in 53 pitches. Hmmmm…former power pitchers going with changeups. What is the world coming to?
I think it’s interesting to watch players develop and evolve, and the PitchFX tool lets me do that with a lot more information. Felix is definitely not the pitcher he was in 2005, and he’s not even the same pitcher that he was last season. It will be interesting to see how he uses his changeup this year, and how he adjusts game-to-game.
Oh, by the way, the M’s and the Astros lead the AL West.
*Felix opened the 2012 season in Japan, and there was no PitchFX technology.