If any active major-league pitcher could be called a nemesis for the A’s, it would be Felix Hernandez.
The Seattle Mariners’ ace is scheduled to make his 42nd career start against the A’s on Wednesday, and while Oakland’s lineups have changed many times since Hernandez first faced them as a 19-year-old rookie in 2005 – throwing seven scoreless innings in a 2-0 win – Hernandez’s success against them has remained largely the same.
Hernandez is 22-8 lifetime against the A’s with a 2.58 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP and a rate of 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings. The A’s, of course, aren’t the only team the 2010 American League Cy Young winner has baffled in his career. But those numbers make Oakland’s clubhouse an interesting place to ask: What is the biggest challenge of hitting against Hernandez?
“Swinging at strikes,” said right fielder Josh Reddick, who has seen Hernandez more than any current A’s player except Coco Crisp and is 7 for 52 with 12 strikeouts.
“He’s got so many pitches that start in the strike zone and end up dropping out so late,” Reddick said. “The biggest thing is laying off those and sticking with the ones that stay in the strike zone. But he’s so good at that, there’s a slim chance of you actually doing it.”
This season, Hernandez is relying mostly on his sinker (27.3 percent of pitches), changeup (25 percent) and curveball (24 percent), mixing in a four-seam fastball (14.7 percent) and slider (7.3 percent), according to Brooks Baseball.
“I think the toughest thing is how many different types of pitches he throws – all right around the zone,” said outfielder Billy Burns, who’s 3 for 15 against Hernandez. “He’s very good at putting the ball somewhere that you think it’s going to be a strike, and then it might drop right out of the zone at the last second.”
The most devastating example is Hernandez’s changeup, which A’s catcher Stephen Vogt called “the best changeup in baseball.”
“It’s got feet of depth,” Vogt said. “And it’s hard to pick up. When he throws his good changeup at your knees and it’s got the depth, you can’t take it and you can’t hit it.”
Rather than be defeated, you just say, ‘Hey, let’s see what happens.’ I don’t expect to have success off of him. But I do know that I can have success off of him.
A’s catcher Stephen Vogt, on hitting against Seattle’s Felix Hernandez
Hernandez throws his changeup only a few miles per hour slower than his fastball, in the 87-89 mph range. Last season, he generated swings on 55 percent of the changeups he threw. Of those, 31.5 percent were swings and misses, and when hitters did put the pitch into play, they hit it on the ground 63.6 percent of the time.
“It looks like a fastball at the knees sometimes,” A’s shortstop Marcus Semien said, “and falls off the table.”
“The bottom falls out of it,” designated hitter Billy Butler agreed. “Just straight out of it.”
Hernandez then can introduce the curveball, which he did on a career-high 22.3 percent of pitches last year and against which opposing hitters batted .134. The site FanGraphs calculated Hernandez saved 19.8 runs last season throwing the pitch, making it the most valuable curveball in the majors in 2015.
That increased use of off-speed stuff has been part of Hernandez’s evolution from a pitcher who averaged 98.6 mph on his fastball as a rookie to 90.7 mph this year. Butler, who is 10 for 38 lifetime against Hernandez with a home run and 11 strikeouts, said the difference between early Hernandez and the current version is like “two different guys.”
“When he was (throwing) 98, he was more fastball-curveball,” Butler said. “Before, you just tried to not miss the fastball, because he was going to throw you one. Now, you’ve got to see him up (in the zone), because anything down is going to (end up) a ball.”
Semien, in his second game against Hernandez last May, became just the fifth player to homer twice off Hernandez in a game. He recalled hitting the first homer on a first-pitch fastball. Now, Semien said, “I usually see a first-pitch breaking ball – for a strike.”
.458 A’s catcher Stephen Vogt’s lifetime average against Felix Hernandez
“He’ll throw any pitch at any time for a strike,” Semien said. “A 3-2 count isn’t a fastball count; 3-1 might not even be a fastball count.”
So which A’s batter is the biggest challenge for Hernandez?
“Stephen Vogt,” the right-hander said Monday.
Vogt is 11 for 24 in his career against Hernandez, a .458 average that ranks fifth among active major leaguers with at least 10 at-bats.
“He don’t swing at bad pitches,” Hernandez said. “He’s pretty disciplined at home plate. If you fall behind, he’s going to make you pay. So he’s pretty difficult.”
Vogt said he thinks his numbers against Hernandez are partly the result of “mentality.”
“Rather than be defeated, you just say, ‘Hey, let’s see what happens,’ ” Vogt said. “I don’t expect to have success off of him. But I do know that I can have success off of him.”
It’s more than most hitters can say.