Fantasy Baseball: Should We Still Trust Felix Hernandez?
Not every king leaves the throne by their own free will. Such may be the case for Felix Hernandez.
For the better part of the last decade, King Felix ruled over the American League, casting off major league batters like lowly peasants. He won the 2010 Cy Young Award, a crowning achievement befitting of his lofty moniker. Like Mel Brooks said, "It's good to be the king!"
Lately, King Felix hasn't been quite so deserving of his nickname. Coming off a mildly underwhelming 2015 campaign by his high standards, 2016 was a downright disappointment.
He pitched to career worsts in ERA (3.82), strikeout rate (18.6%), walk rate (9.9%) and fWAR (1.0). Even worse, ERA estimators suggested his ERA should have been worse, as he also had career worsts in FIP (4.63), xFIP (4.45) and SIERA (4.63). Most alarmingly, this all came about amidst a career low in velocity.
History has shown that pitchers can adjust to declining skills and still be successful. Justin Verlander is the most recent example of this, climbing back from a discouraging 2014 season to become runner-up in Cy Young voting this past season. But for every Verlander there is a Tim Lincecum.
Can King Felix regain his throne?
Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown
In looking at precisely what went wrong with Hernandez last year, one must start with his worrisome drop in velocity.
According to Brooks Baseball, his fastball and sinker both dropped over one mile per hour (MPH) compared to 2015 (91.2 and 90.9 MPH, respectively). It's no secret that Hernandez's velocity has tapered off in recent years, but 2016 was the first season it truly betrayed him.
Using FanGraphs' PITCH/fx data, let's look at how hitters fared against the fastball.
What immediately jumps out is the increase in walk rate (10.6%) and decrease in strikeout rate (14.4%). The high walk rate was due in no small part to hitters swinging at fastballs outside the zone just 13.7% of the time, nearly half his career average rate of 26%.
Hernandez's drop in fastball strikeout rate was reflected by a career low 4.3% swinging strike rate, well below the league average. This resulted in hitters making contact when they swung at pitches in the strike zone a whopping 94.6% of the time.
Simply put, not only was Hernandez not getting hitters to chase fastballs outside the zone, but he wasn't blowing it by them in the zone, either. Hernandez's fastball also had its highest wOBA against and wRC+ against since 2008.
If we check in on Hernandez's sinker, the numbers look even more dire.
In 2016, Hernandez actually walked more hitters with his sinker than he struck out. And as the high wOBA against and wRC+ against show, this hasn't be a terribly effective pitch the last two seasons. After keeping hitters below a .100 isolated power in 2013 and 2014, the number rose all the way to .202 in 2015 and .234 in 2016.
In addition to his velocity issues, Hernandez also uncharacteristically struggled to throw strikes. He threw a career low 40.5% of his pitches in the strike zone, below last year's 44.6% league average. He threw first pitch strikes 59.2% of the time, his lowest percentage since 2009.
We've spent a lot of time knocking Hernandez down a few pegs, and no doubt these are valid concerns moving forward. But this is still a player who not too long ago was considered one of the best in the game. Surely there are also signs he could rebound -- no?
The Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated
Throughout his career, Hernandez has done a good job of limiting hard contact and keeping the ball on the ground.
Despite all the negatives we just mentioned, he maintained this trend last year, giving up a hard-hit rate of just 28.7% (Hard%) and a groundball rate of 50.2% (GB%). While both of these numbers didn't quite match his kingly career averages (26.9% and 54.2%, respectively), they remained strong compared to the rest of the league. Among pitchers who threw at least 150 innings, Hernandez had the 13th-lowest hard hit rate and 17th-highest groundball rate.
Last year was also the first time since 2007 that Hernandez failed to reach 200 innings. He missed nearly two months of action due to a flukey calf injury from celebrating a teammate's home run. One has to wonder whether or not this had a lingering effect on his performance:
|2nd Half||90 1/3||17.7%||10.0%||48.2%||30.9%||.336||4.48||4.98|
The walks and velocity were problems that persisted the entire season, but otherwise Hernandez had second half dropoffs across the board. His first-half groundball and hard-hit rates were more in line with his career numbers, which is a promising sign of what he might be capable of at full strength, particularly if he can lower his walk rate closer to his career norms (7.0%).
Lastly, Hernandez has had an inflated home-run-to-fly-ball ratio in each of the past two seasons, reaching 15.3% in 2015 and 14.5% in 2016. With a career 10.9% HR/FB rate, some positive regression can be expected in this department.
You Come At The King, You Best Not Miss
Hernandez's Steamer Projections predict a rather pedestrian 3.87 ERA, but they also forecast improvements in strikeout rate (19.8%) and walk rate (7.6%), alongside his typically high innings count (203). The decline in velocity is concerning, but a return to his 2012 to 2015 levels isn't out of the question. If Hernandez can maintain an elite hard-hit rate and ground-ball rate the entire season, that ERA number could improve.
In NFBC drafts, Hernandez's average draft position slots him in the early double-digit rounds and just outside the top 30 starting pitchers. He's going alongside fellow bounce-back candidates Matt Harvey and Dallas Keuchel and young talent like Alex Reyes, Michael Fulmer and Jameson Taillon. Hernandez may not have the elite upside anymore, but few pitchers have been as consistent as him over the years. You would be hard pressed to find a higher floor in this price range.
Keep in mind that Hernandez turns just 31 in April, and remains a durable pitcher with strong skills, even if he can't quite mow guys down like he used to. However, his mileage is high, so a repeat of last year isn't out of the question, but there are enough positive signs to think that this is still someone who can be a top-20 starter.
After all, it's good to be the king.