Yesterday Felix Hernandez threw the 23 perfect game in baseball history, dispatching the Tampa Bay Rays with a variety of perfectly located fastballs, earth-shattering sliders, and mind-bending curveballs. Watching him dispatch one Tampa Bay hitter after another was akin to watching Van Gogh paint his starry night or catching the Beatles during the recording of the White Album. King Felix turned one afternoon in Seattle, in front of his adoring court, into his personal thesis on pitching. Here’s just a few thoughts on what I saw:
1) Felix Hernandez is on another level right now
That may be stating the obvious after a guy throws a no-hitter, but Felix Hernandez is purely unhittable right now. We talked about how good he’s been it a couple weeks ago after he threw a 2-hit shutout against the Yankees in the bandbox that is Yankee Stadium, and it’s blatantly apparent now. He has 4 complete game shutouts in his last 10 starts, and 3 of those came against offenses that rank in the top-5 in baseball (Texas, New York, and Boston). His stat line over his last 10 starts: 6-0 with a 1.61 ERA, a .169 batting average against, 78 strikeouts, and only 13 walks in 78.1 innings. Nobody in baseball is getting on base against the King right now.
2) Hernandez may have had the best breaking stuff of his career yesterday
His curveball was absolutely ridiculous yesterday. According to the brilliant folks over at Brooksbaseball.net, Hernandez average curveball had 10 inches of drop and 4 inches of horizontal movement, rendering it impossible to hit, which was evident by the fact that Tampa hitters swung-and-missed the pitch 10 times, which is an elite number. King Felix’s change-up and slider were also working quite nicely, generating 9 swing-and-misses and 7 respectively.
A good way to know how well a pitcher’s breaking ball is moving is to watch a hitter’s reaction to it. Well judging by some of these swings Tampa hitters , the Rays stood no chance. Even Tampa Bay’s best hitter, Evan Longoria, was well off-balance and struggled to properly locate the pitch as it neared home plate. Elliot Johnson in particular looked baffled with some of his swings, even offering at a curveball in the 6th inning that bounced just a few inches from his feet.
3) Felix Hernandez was locating his pitches beautifully
Hernandez never exhibited any signs of pressure during his start, which is a testament to the type of command he had throughout the game. A big part of the reason for this success is the fact that he is hitting his release point 99.9% of the time he throws a pitch. His release point was perfect on all but 2 pitches yesterday, a curveball in the dirt and a fastball in thrown high and well off the plate. Check out this graph from Brooksbaseball.net to see what I mean.
The graph above charts Hernandez’s release point, and if you notice all of the yellow in the middle, those are the swinging strikes. The two pitches furthest away from the middle, both green are the only times Hernandez didn’t hit his release point all day, which is a fantastic level of consistency. If he can be this consistent with his release point again, Hernandez stands a legitimate chance of repeating perfection.
Hernandez also took advantage of an expanding outside corner to left-handed hitters. Joe Maddon got tossed in the 7th inning arguing about it, but he had a point.
Felix was able to work the umpire just off the outside corner, which is very intelligent pitching. If you have an advantage, even an inch or two, you need to exploit it to make getting the hitter out easier. Hernandez is a smart pitcher and rode the outside corner all day long.
4) Jeremy Hellickson threw a hell of a ballgame too
Hellickson brought his A game to Safeco Field as well yesterday, going 7 innings, allowing only 5 hits and 1 walk while striking out 1. He was up to his usual pitch to contact tricks, taking advantage of the soft-hitting Seattle lineup. Hellickson induced 12 ground ball outs, an elite number in 7 innings, while generating weak contact on over 75% of the balls put in play. The only run he gave up was scored after Brendan Ryan flared a single to left field. Ryan then stole 2nd base straight off of Hellickson, who was paying him little attention, and he was able to advance to 3rd when the Rays’ pitcher bounced the pitch in the dirt. Jesus Montero hit a sharp single to drive him in and boom, 1-0 Mariners, which is all the King would need.
5) The King has taken the AL Cy Young lead
Those last 10 games we talked about have given Felix’s overall line a huge bump. He has an 11-5 record with a 2.60 ERA (5th in the AL), 180 innings pitched (1st), 174 strikeouts (2nd), a 1.044 WHIP (4th), and the 5th best strikeout to walk rate in the AL. He’s also 2nd in the AL in complete games with 4, and he leads baseball in shutouts with 4 as well. Justin Verlander, David Price, and Chris Sale are nipping at his heels, so Hernandez can’t afford to slip up, but his performance over the last 2 months has been unmatched in baseball this season.