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Thoughts on King Felix

Felix Hernandez is getting some serious attention. That's nothing new. What's new are a bunch of murmurs and concerns around him. He just doesn't seem to be the King Felix we adore.

How concerned should we be?

Felix's velocity is down. His average fastball is at 91.0 MPH so far this season. It was at 93.3 MPH last season (a career low for him), and 94.5 MPH for his career. The velocity drop is pronounced, but not as bad as it looks.

To date, Felix is one of 41 pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings in 2012, and 39 of those also logged innings in 2011. Of those 39, Felix is among 31 pitchers with a slower fastball velocity this season than they had last season. Overall, the average fastball velocity of these 39 pitchers was 91.4 MPH in 2011, and is 90.4 MPH in 2012. I expect the average velocity to change as the season progresses, and that's the point. Felix the "soft tosser" isn't as soft as at first glance. Velocities are down league-wide, and of the 41 pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched this season, "soft Felix" has the 17th-quickest fastball. That's not elite speed, but puts King Felix at the 59th percentile - more than respectable, especially considering how wicked his breaking stuff is.

Another big concern is the sudden drop in Felix's ground ball rate. His GB/FB ratio was under 1.00 through 2 starts, and if that were to hold, it would be the first time that's happened in his career.

A deeper look at FanGraphs batted ball information suggests a little different issue than fly balls though. According to their data, through Felix's first two starts, 34.7% of batted balls off Felix this year have been fly balls, up from 30.7% last season, and his 27.6% career rate. However, the HUGE difference is in his line drive rate, which was at 34.1% through 2 starts. That's well above the 19.2% rate batters posted against Felix last season, and the 17.4% rate he's produced for his career. As you might have guessed, without a huge change in the fly ball rate, and a spike in the line drive rate, ground balls have gone way down.

So, the problem isn't really the fly balls, it's the line drives that apparently used to be on the ground. My intuition is that there might be something to the elevated line drive rate that's worth watching. However, Felix's line drive rate is ripe for regression to the mean. Last year, among qualified pitchers, Edwin Jackson had the highest line drive rate, at 24.9%. In 2010, Yovanni Gallardo had the highest line drive rate, at 24.0%. It's a given that hitters won't keep hitting liners off of King Felix at the rate they have so far. His GB/FB ratio might naturally right itself to a degree. In fact, it already started to correct itself last night. Now, through 3 starts, Felix's line drive rate is down to 27.9%, and his GB/FB ratio is at 1.10.

The season is young. Yes, the 2012 version of Felix is a version of Felix we haven't seen before. Yes, he is a version that seems more hittable, and a pitcher that appears to be losing steam. However, I'm reluctant to sound any alarms just yet. Felix is in abundant company with his velocity drop. His troubling batted ball profile already showed some signs of regressing. Felix is a victim of his own glorious kingdom. The expectations for him are about as high as any pitcher's in all of baseball. There is a chance that King Felix's reign may be coming to an end, but the odds are against that. It's more likely that he's going to be fine.

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