Felix Hernandez impressive 2011 season continued last night after the 25 year-old Cy Young award winner shut down the Tampa Bay Rays by allowing only one run on five hits, two walks and eleven strikeouts in seven innings. He improved his record to 6-4 while dropping his ERA to 3.04 for the season.
While his 2011 ERA is higher than his 2010 ERA of 2.24, Hernandez's xFIP of 2.92 is an improvement over his 2010 xFIP of 3.14, indicating that he is pitching at the same level as last season. His 2.92 xFIP is the second best in the American League, and his 2.6 WAR is the fourth best in baseball.
Even with his continued success, Hernandez has changed his pitching approach slightly in 2011. With a slight drop in his average fastball velocity (94.1mph to 93.5 mph), Hernandez has relied more heavily on his offspeed pitches.
His change-up usage has increased from 15.3 percent to 19.4 percent; the slider has increased from 10.7 percent to 11.5 percent and his curveball usage has increased from 13.3 to 14.1 percent. The decreased usage of sinking fastballs explains the drop in Hernandez's ground ball percentage from 53.9 percent to 47 percent this season.
Hernandez's BABIP has jumped from .263 to .287 this season, and along with a 69.4 percent strand rate explains the increase in his ERA. Opposing hitters have increased the amount of contact against Hernandez, but his strikeout rate of 9.03 is the best of his career. Hernandez has gained an inch of horizontal movement going away from a left-handed hitter.
While there have been some changes to Hernandez's approach this season, the results have been just as successful as in year's past. Mariners fans should not worry about the decrease in velocity as Hernandez still has most of the season to show improvement.
However, if it does not return to the 94 mph average, expect the same numbers. Velocity has never set him apart as one of the best. His movement and the ability to throw four above average pitches make him stand apart, and he is still the favorite to win this season's Cy Young Award.