It looks like a four-seamer, tails like a two-seamer and plummets like a split-finger. Discovering the perfect changeup catapulted Felix Hernandez from good to otherworldly. Now, can the Mariners make a similar leap?
ONE OF the best pitches in the world, like so many of its predecessors, was birthed by happy accident. Felix Hernandez, already one of baseball's top pitchers, got greedy. After almost four seasons in the majors, his fastball no longer approached triple digits, and as great as his curveball and slider were, he wanted something more. He had a changeup but did not trust it. That was a shame, because as Hernandez knew—as everyone knows—there is no finer weapon in baseball than a great change, a frustrating sleight-of-hand pitch that can softly kill a batter's will.
The experiment started at spring training in 2009. Most mornings Hernandez played catch with Cesar Jimenez, a fellow Venezuelan, who encouraged Hernandez to fiddle with his grip. Then one day it happened: He took the index finger and thumb on his right hand and made them into a circle, positioned his middle finger inside the two seams and—magic. That the grip felt right was one thing. The way the ball moved, and how dramatically? That was something else. "Use that," Jimenez told Hernandez. "You'll be unstoppable."
Hernandez began throwing his new pitch in games right away. He learned to control it, like a cowboy breaking a colt. As the years went by he changed his approach in other ways as well. Hernandez stopped throwing bullpen sessions to conserve his arm strength. He rarely watched video and hardly ever scoured reports on hitters. He didn't want to fall into any patterns. He wanted to throw any pitch at any time—though even hitters expecting his changeup still struggle to make good contact. "I can read swings," he says. "I know what they're all looking for anyway. They're looking for any pitch I throw except my changeup."
With the retirement last year of Mariano Rivera and his cut fastball—a similarly happened-upon pitch, which suddenly appeared during a 1997 game of catch—Hernandez's changeup has assumed the mantle of baseball's finest offering (with some admittedly stiff competition from the likes of Clayton Kershaw's curveball, Yu Darvish's slider and Aroldis Chapman's heater). It has kept the Mariners in contention for the American League wild card and continued the evolution of one of baseball's best pitchers.
Hernandez weighed 218 pounds when he arrived at spring training last March, 12 fewer than what he weighed in recent seasons and 42 fewer than when he came to the U.S. as a 17-year-old in 2003. His catcher, Mike Zunino, says that during spring training he and the Seattle ace wanted to focus on throwing other off-speed pitches for strikes early in counts. All of this was designed to make Hernandez healthier and the changeup—a nasty, confusing, ornery beast already—even more effective.
HERNANDEZ'S CHANGEUP looks like a fastball, tails like a two-seamer and plummets like a split-finger near home plate. The man who throws it stands inside a small room inside the Mariners' clubhouse. His right hand grips a Red Bull, his left tilts his hat just so. Normally he disdains film sessions, but on this Sunday in August his eyes train on a nearby laptop playing a 15-minute video montage of changeups he has thrown, almost 80 in all. Watching the footage is like watching Monet paint with his preferred brush, or listening to Mozart play his favorite piano. It's consistent, repeated perfection, a pitch harnessed by an ace in his prime, deployed to render batters tentative and foolish. Sometimes they miss by inches. Sometimes they miss by feet.
The compilation is from Hernandez's starts in August, against Atlanta, Toronto, Detroit, Boston and Washington. He throws his changeup between 87 and 90 miles an hour, on any count. Hernandez remembers each pitch before his virtual image delivers it. Total recall. He wanted to keep that ball inside and that one low. He wanted to repeat the changeup, and he notes that he dished five straight earlier this season to Boston slugger Yoenis Cespedes, who later crushed one into the stands.
The King's Court, Hernandez's loyal followers who occupy the stands near leftfield at Safeco Field, clad in crowns and gold T-shirts, chant K-K-K-K-K, their alphabet reduced to one letter. The television analysts pay tribute on the sound track: "Felix does it again!"
Mostly, Hernandez just says "strikeout" and "strikeout" and "strikeout" as he watches. Finally he has seen enough. He looks away from the highlight reel. He appears bored, perhaps of trying to explain what mortals cannot understand. He shrugs and takes a slug of energy drink.
"It's my pitch," he says.
IN 2010 the baseball writers held their annual awards dinner in New York. San Diego's Bud Black won NL Manager of the Year, and someone asked him to present the AL Cy Young to Hernandez. So Black told the audience a story. The Padres and the Mariners share a spring training complex in Arizona, and one year Hernandez struck out catcher Nick Hundley on three pitches. When Hundley returned to the dugout, Black asked if the first pitch was a sinker.
"I don't know," Hundley said.
"Second one looked like a change," Black continued.
"I don't know," Hundley said.
"What about the third pitch?" Black asked. "Looked like a slider."
"I don't know," Hundley said.
That's the genius of Hernandez, the indecipherable nature of his repertoire, five pitches that look like one upon release. Hernandez throws two fastballs (four-seamer and sinker), a curveball, a slider and the change. They all look alike to batters as his body unfurls toward the plate, his release point, arm slot and speed revealing nothing.
Most pitchers employ the changeup for variation. Pedro Martinez famously threw his change nearly 20 miles an hour slower than his fastball. The general range, Black says, is a drop of 8 to 10 mph. Hernandez's is more like three or four ticks on the radar gun slower than his four-seam fastball, which averages about 94 mph. That's the twist. Most pitchers throw batters off by changing speeds, but by making his changeup more like his other pitches, not less, and relying on his pitches' movement, Hernandez makes it harder to recognize and react to what's coming. He's pulling quarters from inside batters' ears.
Hernandez's changeup is at once the fastest changeup in baseball and among those with the steepest drops, like an elevator cut from its cables. Austin Jackson, the centerfielder the Mariners acquired from the Tigers in late July, recalls the first time he faced Hernandez, as a Detroit rookie in 2010. It seemed as if every pitch traveled at close to the same speed, and yet the sequence went sinker-sinker-curveball-change, good for another K.
The way the changeup looks out of Hernandez's hand, says Jackson, "you're thinking fastball. Sometimes you can see guys slow down on a changeup. With him being able to throw it as hard as he does, the arm speed, the arm action looks like a fastball ... then it just goes straight down."
Now, standing behind Hernandez during games, Jackson can see the movement more clearly, and yet he remains puzzled. "I've got the best seat in the house," he says, and then to Hernandez, who is arriving at his locker, "I'm telling him about your split-finger."
Hernandez laughs. "Call it whatever you want," he says.
To make all of this even more confusing, Hernandez says he serves batters changeups in three different ways, based on how he moves his hand through the end of his motion. If he holds it normally at the point of release, the ball sinks; if he lifts his hand over the ball, almost palming it, the ball drops; if he swipes through his follow-through, it cuts.
Rick Waits, the Mariners' pitching coach, says the best way to judge Hernandez's changeup is by how batters miss the pitch—nearly half the time they swing at it. So many flails, checked swings, buckled knees. "You're talking about some of the best hitters in the game get[ting] some of the worst swings off this guy," he says.
Waits wants to clarify one point. He is Hernandez's coach, but only to a point. "I've done nothing to this guy," he says. "Especially with the changeup. My job is to shut up."
SPEND ENOUGH TIME on Brooks Baseball or FanGraphs, and Hernandez's changeup assumes otherworldly numerical dimensions, backed by the volume of data only baseball can provide. It's clear that Hernandez is counting on his changeup more this season than before. It's historically his third-most-frequent delivery, but since July 5 he has thrown it more than any other pitch, and overall this season he's throwing it 34% of the time.
Hernandez has not simply thrown the changeup more often but also more effectively. His whiff rate (25%) and ground ball rate (12%) on the change are among his best. That's the point of a changeup, to induce grounders or missed swings. Pitchers succeed when they keep the changeup down in the strike zone. Hernandez has always done that well, and he's getting better; in 2009 he placed the change in the lower 40% of the strike zone 66% of the time. This season he's at 82%.
Waits says he encourages the Mariners' young arms to hone their changeups in the minors, but many abandon their attempts because they can overpower minor leaguers with fastballs and can get rocked as they learn the change. "Not everyone can have a Kershaw curveball," he says, "but they should make it a point to have the best change they can."
Hernandez's opponents are left with two strategies: Swing early in the count, hoping for a fastball, or try and wait Hernandez out, to increase his pitch count. "For pitchers with great changeups I would expand my strike zone," says former Mariners great Edgar Martinez, arguably the best DH in baseball history. "Maybe two inches. Maybe three. But I don't know what I'd do against Felix. I've never seen a pitch, the speed, the movement, like that one."
The Mariners' staff, deep in starters and with a bullpen among baseball's best, has carried one of the AL's worst offensive teams into postseason contention. Many of those pitchers—Chris Young, Fernando Rodney, Roenis Elias, to name three—employ the change. All ask Hernandez for tips, and he sees no reason to hold back. He says a struggling pitcher approached him in Toronto recently and asked about his grip. Hernandez offered pointers. "There's no secret," he says. "No mystery."
There are benefits, however. The change is also believed to relieve stress on the arm. Hernandez has been remarkably durable—he has extreme flexibility in his shoulders—with at least 30 starts in each of his eight full seasons. The more changeups he throws, the longer he believes he will extend his career. Hernandez is only 28. He says he could pitch another decade. (Although, to be safe, he rises and knocks on the wood door to the interview room.)
IN THE past 100 seasons two pitchers have had a strikeout rate above 25%, a walk rate below 5% and a ground ball rate above 50%, according to FanGraphs. Both have done so this season. One is Dodgers ace Kershaw, the winner of two of the last three NL Cy Young Awards and generally recognized as the best in baseball. The other is Hernandez, known as Fifi to his teammates.
It's Sept. 8, and the Mariners are half a game up on Detroit for the second wild card. The franchise that tumbled through a little more than a decade in which mediocrity was considered progress and attendance was cut almost in half is relevant again; with almost a month to go the team has already surpassed last season's attendance. And the Mariners and their fan base are never more energized than on the days that Hernandez starts. Every fifth day is a local holiday. Teammates wear T-shirts with his airbrushed face. happy felix day signs hang in the clubhouse. Especially this year.
From May 18 through Aug. 11, Hernandez had 16 consecutive starts with at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed. He cruised into mid-August with a 1.95 ERA and became the rare hurler to catapult into MVP consideration. He walked fewer batters than in previous seasons and struck them out more often and induced so many ground balls his starts felt more like infield practice. It's 2010 all over again, the year Hernandez changed how baseball looked at its best pitchers, the year he captured the Cy Young Award despite a mediocre-looking 13--12 record, his value that evident, even on a losing team. Except this time the team isn't losing.
TO UNDERSTAND Hernandez's impact on the Mariners, start in the laundry room. It's down the hall from the clubhouse entrance, past the framed photos of Ken Griffey Jr. and Harold Reynolds and Randy Johnson that line the walls. Pete Fortune works there, as the home clubhouse assistant, and in his quarter century with Seattle, he says, Hernandez is "easily the coolest player I've been around."
Hernandez takes the clubhouse guys to Seahawks games and hosts them for barbecues. When he raised the 12th Man Flag at CenturyLink Field before a Seahawks game in 2011, he took them, not business partners or upper management. Fortune stood next to Hernandez as the crowd roared and the ground shook. "That's how he is," Fortune says. "He includes us in a lot of stuff that other guys wouldn't. Not that they need to. But he does."
Hernandez landed in the Pacific Northwest in 2003. He knew it rained—a lot. He knew that two other Venezuelans, Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen, played for the club that signed him as an amateur free agent. And he knew one way to pitch. Or, more accurately, he knew one pitch.
That kid was 17. He spoke little English and carried 260 pounds on his 6'3" frame, closer in size to an NFL linebacker than an ace. Not exactly Bartolo Colon, but ... "I was fat," Hernandez says. "I [didn't] even think about the change. I was throwing 100 miles per hour. It was just fastball, fastball, fastball."
Hernandez bounds into the clubhouse in late August, just as second baseman Robinson Cano tabs him as the loudest teammate he ever played with. Hernandez speaks in rapid-fire Spanish and shoots at a mini--basketball hoop with DH Kendrys Morales, his aim perfect, his range deep. Here is the same guy who handed out bobbleheads of his alter ego from a series of jokey Mariners commercials, Larry Bernandez, while dressed as Bernandez in glasses and a wig. He yells across the clubhouse. "See," Cano says. "LOUD."
There's an obvious comfort level there, forged by a decade spent in the same place. Hernandez has become a unicorn in professional sports: a star who stayed when others left, who believed in various rebuilding plans even though Seattle has had two winning records in the past nine seasons. Sure, the seven-year, $175 million contract he signed in 2013 was strong incentive to stay. But Hernandez could have gotten paid anywhere, by any team. He chose Seattle and became part of its sports fabric, an icon like Martinez or Griffey or the Seahawks' Walter Jones.
Hernandez lives year-round in the Seattle area. He returns to Venezuela for Christmas, then comes right back. He eats breakfast at Chace's Pancake Corral in Bellevue, an unassuming joint that suits his personality, and walks his English bulldog in the local parks. On the day after he signed the extension, he joked to general manager Jack Zduriencik that they needed to work on the next one.
"You look at Tony Gwynn in San Diego," Zduriencik says. "You look at George Brett in Kansas City. You look at Felix Hernandez here."
This commitment to the city may doom Hernandez, of course—to the life of an ace who never pitches in the postseason, the best regular-season pitcher in baseball. Or maybe this season, or next season, will be different. Martinez says this Mariners' team reminds him of the 1994 squad he played on, the one that flashed promise before the playoff run in '95 and "SoDo Mojo." Cano says these Mariners are further along than he expected when he left the Yankees as a free agent after last season, that "this used to be a place where you come and expect to take three of every four, and now you have to come here and compete."
Hernandez visualizes what it might feel like, on the mound at Safeco Field, in a playoff game, everyone decked out in gold T-shirts, a sellout crowd on hand to watch their King. "I believe in this organization," he says. "I believe we're going to the playoffs. I believe we're going to win. I believe that things will change."
That's what Hernandez learned in 2009, what carried him through all the losses and roster turnover. To remain dominant, to become elite, he needed to evolve. In other words, change is good.
But his change: the best.
Pitchers in the last 100 seasons with a K rate above 25%, a BB rate below 5% and a ground ball rate above 50%: Kershaw and Hernandez
Strikeout-to-walk ratio for Hernandez this season, on pace to be the best of his career, thanks to 209 K's and just 37 walks allowed