The burning focus of the New York media and rabid fan base that drives it took little time to zero in on Michael Pineda's limp fastball. An offseason removed from finishing the season near the top of the fastball velocity leaderboard and acquired at the expense of the next Yankee Hall of Famer, Pineda's high-80s/low-90s fastball became a major Spring Training storyline.
Felix Hernandez undoubtedly deserves a longer leash, but it's surprising that it's taken until April for the story of his decreased velocity to gain steam. According to Spring Training pitch f/x data and the Tokyo Dome stadium gun, Felix has barely topped 90 MPH during the ramp up to the season. In his final Cactus League tuneup on April 2nd, he topped out at 90.9 MPH. Felix has been one of the hardest throwing starting pitchers in his own right, averaging 93.3 MPH with his fastball last season, so it's no surprise that a coasting Felix is starting to spawn some concern.
Emphasis on some. Unlike Pineda, Felix showed up in great physical condition and has fared well throughout Spring Training. It would seem that all other systems are go. But will he dial it up as hitters do?
If he's worried, he's not showing it. 710's Shannon Drayer:
"It's spring training," he said. "I'm fine. I was trying to be like Jamie Moyer."
Felix said that he has been unaware of his velocity all spring. He said he felt great in Japan and was not worried because everything felt right.
Doubting Felix is beginning to feel like doubting Ichiro. If too much of a fuss is made it seems inevitable that he'll pop 95 on his first 15 pitches in Oakland on Saturday and make a lot of people feel foolish.
But we can have the discussion without whipping ourselves into a frenzy. If for some reason his velocity permanently slumps to the 90-91 range and he is otherwise healthy, would he still be a top-tier ace?
Not all frontline starters have to be like Justin Verlander. There are plenty of championship-caliber aces that reside just north of 90 and it's not hard to imagine Felix becoming one of them in this scenario. He's developed from a fastball/slider thrower in the mid-'00s to a more complete pitcher. "All five" of his offerings are great and he seems to be able to put them where he wants them. His strikezone percentage has gone down but he's inducing more swings and (presumably weak) contact outside of the strikezone, suggesting that he's peppering the black and the space just beyond. His 2010 and 2011 heat maps may suggest this sort of progression. He tweaked his approach and improved his ability to pound and extend the outside corner to right-handed hitters.
This all bodes well. Without plus velocity, Felix's margin for error would undoubtedly decrease. But he'd still have amazing stuff. His pitches would continue to dip, slide, fade and dive all over the place. He'd miss bats regardless. He'd keep his walks down. He would probably give up more dingers on mistake pitches, but there could be offsetting positive gains as well. Maybe taking a couple ticks off would actually add more movement to his pitches. Maybe he'd adjust by dialing up the precision.
This spring aside, Felix has lost some velocity; most starting pitchers do as they move away from their early 20s. But it's too early to tell just how much he'll drop in 2012. It's still reasonable to believe that he's building himself up and will be back to where he was a year ago by the end of the month. Thankfully, his next two starts are scheduled to come against the Oakland Athletics, allowing him a low-pressure environment to get it all sorted out (zing!). And if the velocity continues to be a story then we'll have a lot to debate and analyze this summer.
In the mean time, I can't be too worried. I tend to think Felix would be great either way.