It may not be quite accurate to suggest Felix Hernandez is pitching the best baseball of his career, considering he’s won a Cy Young Award, pitched a perfect game and has been one of the game’s best starters since 2009.
But Felix Hernandez is pitching the best baseball of his career.
Hernandez threw eight scoreless innings against the Indians on Sunday in a 3-0 win, allowing just one hit -- a fifth-inning ground ball by Lonnie Chisenhall off an 0-1 curveball just to the right of a diving Robinson Cano. Or half-diving, I should say; Cano isn’t one to lay full-out for a ball, even with a no-hitter on the line. It was a makeable play for someone with a little better range. As smooth and effortless as Cano looks on defense, I don’t think his range is up there with the elite defenders. The Mariners didn’t have a shift on against Chisenhall; if they had, it would have been a routine play for the defender playing up the middle.
(As an aside: Giants fans weren’t happy with my write-up on Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter last Thursday, because I dared to mention that it came against the .216-hitting Padres, making it rather unimpressive in the annals of no-hitters, especially when also factoring in Lincecum struck out just six batters. But doesn’t Hernandez’s game on Sunday show the luck usually needed for a no-hitter? That’s why we don’t see many of them. You need a great pitching performance and a few balls that don’t find holes. Chisenhall’s ball wasn’t hit hard; if Cano had been playing one step to his right, he would've made the play.)
One of the things that makes Hernandez so tough is that he can alter his game plan in any given start. Yes, hitters know they’re going to see a lot of changeups, especially with two strikes, but on Sunday, five of Hernandez’s nine strikeouts came on fastballs, which tied his most in a start over the past five seasons. Hernandez’s fastball velocity has actually been up a little bit from 2013 -- 92.3 mph compared to 91.6, but he isn’t one to air it out all the time, a good lesson for the kids who want to throw 97 every pitch. Hernandez can still run it up to 95; more than anything, however, he puts it where he wants it. Look where he spots his fastball against left-handers:
While his changeup is one of the most lethal pitches in the majors, it's his fastball command (and also his ability to throw his curveball and slider for strikes) that sets up the change. For Hernandez, pitching is about outthinking the hitter. Because of his command, left-handers are hitting .255 against his fastball with no home runs. (Hernandez hasn’t allowed a home run on a fastball all season.) And when hitters fall behind, they get that changeup that dives low and away -- left-handers are hitting .122 against that pitch.
Hernandez now has nine straight games where he’s pitched at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs , the longest such stretch of his career. Even in this era of dominant pitching, that’s a rarely seen streak of dominance; the only other pitchers with nine such games in a row since 2010 have been Justin Verlander in 2011 and Johnny Cueto this year (Cueto had 10 if you include his final start from 2013). Even going back to 1990, the only other pitchers with nine in a row were Johan Santana in 2004 and Randy Johnson in 1999. The last pitcher with more? Mike Scott, with 12, in 1986.
Hernandez is on a pretty historic stretch of pitching, and is a key reason the Mariners are 44-38 and currently holding a slim lead for the second wild-card spot. Unfortunately in the tough AL West, while the Mariners have gone 7-3 over their past 10 games, they have failed to make up any ground as the Angels also went 7-3 and the A’s went 8-2.
While Hernandez's command seems better than ever, and he’s allowed only four home runs, he’s also benefited from better defense and Mike Zunino behind the plate. It’s no coincidence that Hernandez had his two best seasons in 2009 and 2010 -- those teams had Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro Suzuki in the outfield and the '09 squad had Adrian Beltre at third for most of the season. The Mariners’ defense, particularly in the outfield, was brutal last season. Look at Seattle’s Defensive Runs Saved each year since 2009:
After posting a 2.38 ERA in 2009-10, Hernandez has been over 3.00 each of the past three seasons, although his strikeout and walk rates remained about the same. (He actually had the best K-rate and lowest walk rate of his career last season, and has improved slightly in both categories in 2014.)
Last year, thanks in part to that terrible defense, Hernandez allowed a .313 average on balls in play, his highest since 2008. Yes, getting Raul Ibanez and Michael Morse out of the outfield has helped the Mariners' defense.
The other benefit has been Zunino, a much-improved catcher compared to the likes of Jesus Montero, Miguel Olivo and other recent Mariners catchers. Check out the percentage of "takes" that have been called strikes for Hernandez:
2014: 36.6 percent
2013: 32.4 percent
2012: 33.7 percent
2011: 34.4 percent
2010: 34.0 percent
2009: 31.9 percent
Yes, we could simply chalk that up to Hernandez throwing more strikes or improving his command, and some of that is probably true (along with, I would suggest, better focus each start). But Zunino has undoubtedly helped; Statcorner.com rates Zunino is fourth in the majors in runs saved due to his pitch framing. Even a couple extra strikes a game can be a big help.
It’s been a bit of a magical season so far for the Mariners, but nothing has been more magical than Hernandez. The King has led the way.