The Wednesday Takeaway
Remember when the Mariners gave Felix Hernandez a record-setting seven-year, $175 million extension this past offseason, and then news of a possible elbow injury surfaced, and then Hernandez’s first Safeco Field start since the payday briefly stirred concerns that the annual 230-plus inning workloads were finally taking their toll? The right-hander’s fastball may no longer touch the mid- to high 90s, as it did during his first few major-league seasons, but his last five starts have left no doubt that King Felix is still King Felix.

In yesterday’s matinee at PNC Park, the 27-year-old Hernandez stymied the Pirates over eight innings of work, keeping pace with A.J. Burnett until Jesus Montero’s solo shot gave the Mariners a decisive 2-1 lead. Hernandez’s fastball only averaged a tick over 91 mph, but his secondary offerings baffled the Pirates from beginning to end, as 26 of his 33 changeups, curveballs, and sliders went for strikes. With virtually everything working, Hernandez needed only 97 pitches to record 24 outs, before Tom Wilhelmsen cleaned up the ninth inning to earn his ninth save.

And as impressive as Wednesday’s outing alone was, it has recently become the norm for Hernandez, who has now finished the eighth in four of his last five starts. Hernandez’s five strikeouts were his lowest single-game total during the recent stretch of dominance, in which he has pitched 38 innings and amassed a 40-to-2 K:BB while allowing only one home run. That’s good for a 1.60 FIP, which is fitting, since Hernandez’s ERA was 1.60 coming into yesterday’s series finale. It now sits at 1.53 and has dropped with each of his last five trips to the mound.

Next up for Hernandez is a visit to the Bronx, where he spun a two-hit shutout last August 4. No pitcher can boast a lower ERA at the new Yankee Stadium than King Felix’s 1.13 mark, which the righty will try to maintain on Wednesday, assuming the Mariners stick to their current rotation. 

Matchup of the Day
Phillies lefty Cole Hamels, who signed a six-year, $144 million extension last July, hasn’t been sharp in his first seven trips to the mound this season. Hamels, who typically exhibits excellent control and command of his arsenal, has seen his walk rate tick up from 6.0 percent last year to 9.0 percent so far in 2013, while his strikeout rate has declined from 24.9 percent in 2012 to 21.1 percent this year. As a result, Hamels’ FIP has climbed to 4.42, and even though his .240 BABIP suggests good fortunes in the early going, his ERA stands at a pedestrian 4.34.

The 29-year-old Hamels enters this evening’s assignment against the Diamondbacks with strong career numbers in the hitter-friendly Chase Field, where he has won four of five games and amassed a 3.38 ERA and 0.81 WHIP, both aided by a superb 33-to-5 K:BB. But manager Kirk Gibson’s roster saw significant turnover this offseason, and among the new hitters with whom Hamels will need to contend is Cody Ross. The 32-year-old Ross, who spent the 2012 season with the Red Sox, has been a pest to the southpaw dating back to his National League East days with the Marlins, and he pounded Phillies pitching in the 2010 NLCS, earning MVP honors in the process.

Ross comes into tonight’s showdown with a 12-for-40 lifetime line versus Hamels, including two doubles and five home runs, his highest long-ball tally off of any pitcher. Add three walks and five strikeouts in the lot of 43 plate appearances, and you’ve got a .300/.349/.725 triple-slash line that stands out even when compared to Ross’ overall excellence against left-handed pitching, which is evidenced by a .325 career TAv.

As the plot above, from Ross’ hitter profile, shows, the righty thrives on offerings over the inner third and those left down the middle of the plate. That’s true across all types—fastballs, off-speed pitches, and breaking stuff—so for opposing southpaws seeking to retire Ross, the key is command of pitches over and off of the outer portion of the plate. 

Hamels learned that the hard way when the two last met on May 18, 2012. After issuing a four-pitch walk to Ross in his first trip to the box, Hamels tried to get into his kitchen with cutters, but he missed well off the plate twice and was forced to give in with a down-and-in four-seamer, which Ross clubbed for a double. The next time Ross came to bat, Hamels grooved a first-pitch fastball and paid an even steeper price.

Three of Ross’ five home runs against Hamels have come on the opening offering, a fastball each time: on the inner black on May 31, 2008, and belt-high over the inner third on August 8, 2009. He will need to be more careful in early counts this evening to get to the two-strike situations in which Ross’ tendency to chase soft stuff down and away makes him vulnerable. An approach similar to the one that yielded this strikeout on July 27, 2011 might prove effective again, with Hamels’ bread-and-butter changeup serving as the putaway pitch (9:40 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • A little less than three weeks ago, Dan Haren was sporting a 7.36 ERA and looking ahead to looming assignments against the potent Reds, Braves, and Tigers. Well, the righty has since handled Cincinnati and Atlanta, and his most recent outing—in which he held Dusty Baker’s bats to just one run in a season-high eight innings of work—led teammate Denard Span to declare that “three-time All-Star Dan Haren is back.” The 32-year-old Haren, whose start was pushed back a day by Tuesday’s rainout, can leave little doubt about that by shutting down the Tigers, who will counter with Doug Fister in the series finale at Nationals Park (4:05 p.m. ET). 
  • The Blue Jays’ off-season acquisition of R.A. Dickey put the defending National League Cy Young Award winner in the same division as his American League counterpart, David Price, and today, the decorated hurlers will square off for the first time since taking home the hardware. Neither Dickey, whose ERA has nearly doubled, from 2.73 to 5.36, nor Price, whose ERA has more than doubled, from 2.56 to 6.25, has lived up to the billing over the first month and change of the season, but perhaps tonight’s showdown will bring out the best in both of them (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Gopher balls have been a problem for Ryan Vogelsong since his second start of the season, and the 35-year-old has not yet shown any signs of being able to resolve it. In total, Vogelsong has surrendered eight home runs over 35 innings of work, resulting in a 7.20 ERA that is otherwise incongruous with his 30-to-12 K:BB. Tonight, he’ll do battle with a power-packed Braves lineup that leads the National League in home runs. If Vogelsong doesn’t figure out a way to eliminate his location mistakes, his long-ball counter could reach double digits by the end of the evening (10:15 p.m. ET). 

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As a close watcher of every Felix start for about the last five years, his velocity is well down of course, as documented, but he has improving movement AND command as well as the normal great mix of upper 80s changeups(looks like a splitter), upper 80s cutter/slider, plus curveball he throws for strikes almost at will and an occasional sinker at 89-90 that really dives down and in on righties and causes a lot of grounders.

Still, by far the most impressive element and improvement is his command. He's gotten very comfortable at a relatively easy effort delivery and now he has well above average command of those five pitches. He's at his best right now, a much better *pitcher* then when he threw in the mid to upper 90s.
Interesting stuff. The strike rate on his offspeed pitches yesterday certainly caught my eye, too.