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Felix Hernandez Perfect Game: Why He's the Nastiest Pitcher in MLB When He's On

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Felix Hernandez Perfect Game: Why He's the Nastiest Pitcher in MLB When He's On
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Felix Hernandez finally pitched a perfect game. What took him so long?

Let's be honest, it was just a matter of time before Felix Hernandez pitched a perfect game. The only questions were when and where it would happen, and who the victim would be. 

We have our data: Aug. 15, 2012, Safeco Field, Tampa Bay Rays.

King Felix is the proud owner of the 23rd perfect game in Major League Baseball history. The Seattle Mariners' ace righty needed just 113 pitches to set down all 27 Rays hitters he faced, striking out 12 of them in the process. He only got one run of support, but that was enough.

Per Baseball-Reference.com, only Matt Cain, Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson have struck out more hitters in a perfect game. The game score of 99 Hernandez earned in his perfecto is the fourth-highest game score ever posted in a perfect game, once again behind the aforementioned trio of pitchers.

So yeah, King Felix just achieved one of the best performances by a pitcher in the history of baseball. Just in case you needed stats to tell you that.

If you watched the game, I'm guessing you could tell by the fifth inning that the Rays weren't going to get anything off of Hernandez. He's always nasty, but his stuff was even nastier than usual on Wednesday. He consistently was throwing his fastball in the mid-90s with filthy movement, and his breaking stuff was defying the law of physics all afternoon.

In all, Hernandez ended up throwing 77 of his 113 pitches for strikes (yes, get ready for more stats). Of those, 26 were of the swinging variety, a new season high for him. Before Wednesday, the most swinging strikes he'd gotten in a single game was 18.

Mark Simon of ESPN broke down the specifics on Twitter, making sure to note that performances like Hernandez's don't happen every day:

What's scary about Hernandez is that he has the stuff to put up numbers like these every single time he takes the mound, hence the reason why it was just a matter of time before he threw a perfect game. When he's on, no pitcher in baseball is as nasty.

A bold statement, I know. A lot of pitchers are in the "nastiest when he's on" discussion, including (just off the top of my head) Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Jered Weaver, David Price and Josh Johnson.

I'd also throw Brandon Morrow in the discussion, simply because it's pretty darn hard to throw a complete-game shutout almost a quarter of the time you take the mound, as Morrow did this season before he got hurt.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Getting mobbed by teammates. Still has his arms in the air. That's swagger, bro.

Nobody can match Hernandez's combination of stuff, control and swagger, though. Especially not his arsenal, which consists of one of the best fastballs in the game and a slew of off-speed pitches that are straight out a cheesy Nintendo video game from the late 1980s.

According to FanGraphs, Hernandez's fastball is coming in at an average of roughly 92 miles per hour this season. That's misleading, though, as he's a lot like Verlander in that he can crank up his fastball to 95 or 96 when he wants to and hold it there for innings at a time. We saw him do that on Wednesday against the Rays.

Hernandez's breaking stuff is the main reason why he's one of relatively few starting pitchers in the league with a swinging-strike percentage of at least 10.0. He gets hitters to swing at pitches out of the zone more than 32 percent of the time.

A lot of pitchers are doing that this season, but only a select few are allowing contact on pitches outside the strike zone at a rate of less than 62 percent. Hernandez is one of them.

And all of these numbers aren't even adjusted for Wednesday's performance yet. Keep that in mind.

As for that arsenal of his, there's one thing you can do to get a good idea of how deep it goes, and that's head over to FanGraphs and check out how his pitches rate in terms of effectiveness. Anything above zero signifies that a pitch is above average, and you'll see that the only pitch he throws that qualifies as being a below-average pitch is his sinker.

And since he's only throwing his sinker about 12 percent of the time this season, it's not such a big deal that his sinker is a below-average pitch. He's taken to throwing his cutter a lot more instead, with encouraging results.

(It's also worth noting that it's very, very hard to throw a sinker that the computers deem to be "above average," as it's a pitch designed to put the ball in play, and bad things can happen when the ball is in play.)

With so many excellent pitches to turn to, it borders on being unfair that King Felix also has excellent control. He came into Wednesday's action walking a career-low 2.32 hitters per game with a 3.68 strikeout-to-walk ratio that ranked seventh in the American League.

Beyond stuff and control, the one other thing Hernandez has in abundance is swagger. This is an opinion that I unfortunately can't back up with stats, but no pitcher takes the mound with as much swagger as Hernandez. His confidence level is always through the roof.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Also king of standing-on-one-leg contests.

The total package—the stuff, the control, the swagger—is working better than ever these days. King Felix entered Wednesday's start against the Rays with a 1.73 ERA and a .195 opponents' batting average over his last 11 starts, with 78 strikeouts and only 15 walks in 83.1 innings.

This 11-start stretch saw him shut out the Boston Red SoxTexas Rangers and New York Yankees, who happen to occupy the top-three slots in the American League in runs scored.

And now, Hernandez has thrown a perfect game.

So here's a hint, my fellow baseball junkies: When Hernandez takes the mound Tuesday, Aug. 21 against the Cleveland Indians, do whatever you can to make sure you watch.

It is, after all, a chance to watch a master pitcher—one who's pitching better now than he ever has before.

And that's saying something.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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