Felix Hernandez, the Seattle Mariners and a really bad contract extension

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Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports that Felix Hernandez and the Mariners have agreed to a seven-year, $175 million contract extension.  The contract will make him the highest paid pitcher in baseball history, both in overall contract and in average annual value.

The Mariners will tear up his current deal, which was to pay him $19.5 million this year, and replace it with the new one. It will pay him, on average, $25 million a year through 2019. It’s not known yet if the contract amount increases over time or if it’s a flat $25 million a year.

Lemme say it right here.

This is a bad move.

No, it’s a terrible move.

Hernandez is a great pitcher. One of the best in the game no doubt.  I absolutely love the guy and would kill to have him on my team…at the right price.

I mean the dude is 98-76 with a 3.22 ERA and 1,487 strikeouts and 480 walks in 1620.1 innings across eight seasons.

Those are great numbers sandwiched around one really freakin’ scary one. Simply put, “them’s a lot of innings man”.

No matter how you slice it, the guy already has a ton of mileage on him and more importantly we’ve already seen a substantial decrease in his velocity.

via Fangraphs this is what King Felix was throwin in his in 2007:

Felix Hernandez Pitch Velocity 2007

The fastball was 95-100, the slider was 89-92, the change-up was 86-89 (ignore the “FS” labels, as the algorithm wasn’t so good back then), and even his “slow curve” was 82-87. Felix was the embodiment of a power pitcher, and while his three off-speed pitchers were all notable in their own right, Felix’s mid-90s two-seamer was his defining pitch. There just weren’t many guys in the game that could run a sinking fastball up there at 95 MPH, and that pitch helped him run a 60.8% GB% that year.

Now here is what he did in a randomly picked start this past season:

Felix Hernandez Pitch Velocity 2012

The change-up is still in the upper-80s, while the slider and curve are both down a couple of ticks on average, but not too terribly far from where they were five years ago. However, the fastball is 90-93, and because of its close proximity to the change-up, it’s basically indistinguishable in the chart. Instead of two distinct clumps, there’s just now one big mess of pitches in the 90 MPH range with similar movement and velocity.

It’s not just the lack of swinging strikes that set his fastball apart on Saturday night, however. As noted, Felix came into the league as an extreme groundball pitcher. As his velocity has declined slightly over the last four years, he’s settled in as more of a 50-55% groundball guy.

Now none of this is to say he will not be a very effective pitcher for the bulk of this contract, provided he stays healthy.

But the warning signs are there:

Felix Hernandez downward spiral on the velocity charts.

We saw these signs with Johan Santana before he signed his big deal with the Mets & then we saw them a couple years back with Tim Lincecum.

Johan was nothing short of a bust when you factor in the cost of the contract (3 very good years, one injury riddled year everyone who paid attention saw coming and one mediocre bounce-back season so far) and “The Freak” is not a guy you’d want to see your team handing a 7 year/$175M deal to right now, is he?

The Mariners have a good farm system but it is loaded with pitching and not a lot of high-end offense, at least not with any amount of depth to survive flame-outs and injuries that are bound to happen.

Felix is just a high-priced (albeit proven) version of what they have tons of in the system.

They’re trying to catch an A’s team that has a decent organization, tons of pitching depth and a shrewd general manager.

They’re trying to catch up to a Rangers team that is both light-years ahead of them AND has every bit the farm system they have.

They’re trying to catch up with the Angels who have a lot of young offensive talent, two of the games biggest sluggers and an owner that is not afraid to make bold moves or write big checks.

In other words, simply re-signing one man at such a huge expense is not going to get it done.

They would have been much better served to put him on the market and completely fleece a team like Boston or New York for 5-6 high impact prospects.

By the time this team turns it around Felix will have 2,500 – 3,000 innings on that arm, his velocity will have lost a couple of more miles per hour and he will in all likelihood be a shadow of his former self.

At that point he’ll still be owed two to three years at $25M per season and you’ll be over-paying for “veteran’s presence” while wishing you had never made this deal.

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2 comments

  1. Steve

    Definitely love reading articles that really analyze these free agent signings. I love thinking about the economics of baseball (and do it at my own blog, http://baseballrethought.com). I think the main argument they have here is that there were “intangibles” that made the signing of Felix valuable; that is, they believe that the fan base was specifically coming out to the games to see him pitch because he was the quote face of the franchise. Hell, they even have a section of the stadium dedicated to him. Although I definitely agree he’s a great pitcher, as you say, he’s bound to break down from all these innings at least one of these years, and if it’s something to do with the arm (which is likely) we can see a substantial velocity drop. I think they’re weighing the benefits of him definitely being around and keeping an identity to this team after losing Ichiro with an understanding that he will not be the same pitcher in a couple of years. Good article.

    Cheers,
    Steve

    • djpostl

      I think really, in the end they painted themselves in a corner. Years of “we’re not trading Felix…” put them in a pickle.

      But yes, intangibles have to be part of the equation. My only issue is that it is one BIG ass equation lol. (I’m sure they cringed when Greinke signed his deal seeing how one really could argue that based on actual track record he is half the pitcher Felix is).

      It was a ballsy move. I just hope he doesn’t become their Joe Mauer, crippling them financially moving forward.

      Nice website btw =o

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