It’s been more than two months since Felix Hernandez, the man long considered the ace in Seattle, allowed fewer than two runs in a start. Now, in his 12th season with the Mariners, it appears he shouldn’t be leading the starting rotation anymore.
When Hernandez won the 2010 Cy Young, he had 14 starts in which he struck out at least eight batters (41.2 percent of his total 2010 starts). Last season he had 10 (32.2 percent) and this season he has three (23.1 percent). This season he has 66 total strikeouts — 126 starters with at least 80 innings pitched (he’s tossed 80.2) have more.
Much of that data is skewed by him missing a number of starts, but this isn’t: His strikeouts per nine innings pitched figure ranks third on the Mariners among starting pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched, and ranks outside the top 75 when taking into account the rest of the league.
His 18.9 percent strikeout rate, or the number of players struck out divided by total plate appearances, is not only the lowest of his career, but nearly two percentage points lower than any other season. When he won the Cy Young, that rate was 23.2 percent, nearly five percentage points higher than it is now.
He no longer has blow-by pitches in his arsenal. Fangraphs’ swing-strike percentage metric calculates how many swings and misses a pitcher accounts and divides that figure by total pitches. Hernandez’s mark (8.7 percent) is not only a career low, it falls outside the top-80 leader board this year.
His four-seam fastball, curveball and change-up, according to Fangraphs’ pitch value metric, are producing the third-lowest values of any season in his career.
In particular, his fastball is getting peppered. Opponents are batting .284 against it, the highest average since his rookie year. Much of this is a result of a dip in velocity. The average release speed of his fastball is 91.1 mph this season, 7.5 mph slower than it was when he entered the league. And yet, even with this regression in velocity, he’s relying on the pitch more, giving opposing hitters more opportunities to load up on his decaying weapon.
He is no longer getting opposing hitters to chase his pitches. His O-Swing percentage, or the number of hacks taken against pitches thrown outside the strike zone, of 30.8 is a career low. What’s more, 64.8 percent of hacks taken on those pitches outside the zone are resulting in contact, the second-highest mark of his career.
These figures are further amplified when you consider his zone-percentage, or the number of pitches actually thrown in the strike zone. That number (41.8 percent) is also a career low, marking the sixth consecutive season he has produced a mark below his career average in the metric, suggesting this isn’t a new issue with which he’s dealing. He simply isn’t locating his pitches the way he used to. The league average zone-percentage among starting pitchers qualified for the ERA title is 45.2 percent, or nearly four percentage points higher than what Hernandez is producing.
In overall contact, he isn’t flummoxing many hitters at the plate. Batters are making contact on 80.6 percent of their swings against him, his worst rate since 2008 and a mark that ranks in the top 45 in the league.
At just 5-4 this season, ZiPS, Steamer and Depth Charts projections have Hernandez finishing 2016 with the fewest wins of any season of his career, save for his rookie year in which he started just 12 games. It’s worth noting, this year is on pace to be his first since 2007 that he will have failed to eclipse 200 innings pitched and started 30-plus games.
There was a stretch, from 2009 through 2015, where Hernandez averaged 14.9 wins per season. He’ll be lucky to reach double digits this year.