For a vast majority of his career, Felix Hernandez has dominated major league hitters, regularly delighting Seattle crowds and fantasy owners alike that hailed him as King Felix. However, something has changed in the last two seasons, the Mariners ace has taken steps in the wrong direction. Last year, at this time, there were still true believers, still those claiming that King Felix would still reign as an ace. Last year, his decline was discussed as something that may be coming into view, but not a guaranteed, foregone conclusion.
Those supporting voices have grown quieter in the aftermath of 2016 because Hernandez’s owners have witnessed and felt the effects of his continued decline in what has become a very troubling trend. In 153.1 innings last year, Hernandez posted a 3.82 ERA with a 1.32 WHIP, 7.16 K/9 and 3.82 BB/9. The strikeout and walk numbers are particularly troubling declining 1.36 from 8.52 K/9 and increasing 1.23 from 2.59 BB/9 in 2015. According to the 2016 peripherals, Hernandez actually deserved significantly worse with a 4.63 FIP and 4.43 xFIP.
Now, we must establish whether Felix can return to ace levels or even 2015 levels, where Hernandez was not an ace, but very useful as 29th ranked SP.
Along with declining final results, Hernandez has seen a decline in his skills profile. His velocity has specifically and precipitously fallen over the course of the last three seasons. After rebounding in 2014 to 92.4 MPH, Hernandez’s velocity fell in 2015 to 91.8 MPH and cratered last year down to 90.5 MPH. Unsurprisingly, Hernandez’s fastball produced a negative pitch value in each of the last two years and for the first time since 2011. The velocity decline has contributed to increased HR rates from 0.61 in 2014 up the last two seasons to 1.03 in 2015 and 1.12 in 2016.
I theorize that Hernandez’s slowing fastball and resulting home run rate increase are the reasons why Hernandez has become shy of the strike zone. Hernandez landed in the zone with his pitches just 40.5% of the time, the lowest mark of his career. Even though he was outside the zone more often, hitters swung less at his pitches outside the zone – 31.8% of the time, his lowest rate since 2009.
Last year, Hernandez did miss a month and a half, hitting the DL on June 1, 2016 and returning on July 20. His average velocity pre-injury was 90.1 and when he returned on July 20 through the end of the season, his velocity was up to 90.8. This gives some hope that the calf strain was something that may have sapped him of velocity for the whole year. If Hernandez can return to 91.5+ mph on average, then he could be effective like in 2015, but probably will never return to fantasy ace-level unless there is some substantial skill change that occurs.
Hernandez is a player that you need to watch in Spring Training as his value will substantially depend on where his velocity sits. If he’s in the aforementioned range, Hernandez could be a top-30 starter once again. If your fellow drafters are scared off based upon mileage along with recent injury and ineffectiveness, there could be some room for profit. This is unlikely to occur though. According to current CouchManagers ADP, Felix Hernandez is the 25th starting pitcher off the board. It is doubtful that the situation improves as we get closer to draft season. Felix Hernandez is a name and we know people dream on names. This could result in no profit even with a return to 2015 levels and a substantial investment loss if the injury is masking a dramatic fall-off. I would much rather have Jose Quintana as the 29th starter off the board.
Most likely, I will stay away unless I misread the market entirely. The skill levels have fallen off and capped his upside barring a velocity bump after the age of 30 or some sort of skill, mix change, which is not out of the question, but difficult to predict in March, much less December.
My Projection: 185 innings, 3.72 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 154 Ks.