Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/20/14
Last week, the Seattle Mariners inked their ace, Felix Hernandez, to a $175 million extension for the next seven years. The dominating righty will be entering his age-27 season this year, meaning the contract will through his age-33 season. That is, unless, he injures his right elbow. Embedded within Hernandez’s contract is a clause that gives the Mariners a club option for an eighth season — at a paltry $1 million — should Hernandez miss at least 130 consecutive days due to any kind of procedure to his right elbow. The Mariners negotiated this clause after some concern over what their doctors saw in the pitcher’s MRI. Apparently, the club was reassured enough by their medical staff to sign the mammoth deal, even though the track record for long-term pitcher extensions isn’t the greatest. But how confident should the team be? To begin with, Hernandez has been a starter in the league since 2005, and he moved into the rotation full time in 2006. Since 1920, Hernandez ranks 13th in innings pitched through the age-26 season. That list of 13 reads as you would expect — a group of historical hurlers — some of who continued their greatness after age 26 and others whose performances fell precipitously: Name G GS IP ERA- FIP- K% BB% HR/9 BABIP LOB% WAR Bert Blyleven 282 279 2143.2 76 72 19.9% 6.4% 0.62 0.279 76.10% 55.5 Don Drysdale 313 262 1945 81 84 18.4% 6.8% 0.81 0.274 75.50% 39.9 Hal Newhouser 300 235 1889 71 76 16.2% 10.7% 0.26 0.268 73.90% 42.8 Catfish Hunter 286 263 1881.2 97 102 16.3% 7.4% 0.94 0.246 75.50% 18.9 Fernando Valenzuela 244 234 1805.2 87 85 19.6% 8.9% 0.55 0.275 73.30% 36.0 Dwight Gooden 238 236 1713.2 82 72 22.1% 7.2% 0.46 0.286 74.10% 45.4 Joe Coleman 260 238 1686.2 98 94 17.2% 8.3% 0.79 0.272 74.50% 23.3 Robin Roberts 230 207 1669.1 76 83 11.8% 5.7% 0.68 0.264 75.50% 33.6 Vida Blue 235 224 1666 82 88 17.2% 7.9% 0.63 0.254 75.40% 29.9 Mel Harder 291 200 1662 79 85 7.6% 6.7% 0.34 0.291 66.40% 32.0 Pete Donohue 253 209 1634.1 89 87 6.8% 4.3% 0.20 0.289 65.60% 28.2 Milt Pappas 260 232 1623 90 96 14.1% 7.9% 0.79 0.256 74.80% 20.6 Felix Hernandez 238 238 1620.1 78 81 22.2% 7.2% 0.72 0.298 74.60% 38.3 Here’s how each of those pitchers finished their careers after that: Name G GS IP ERA- FIP- K% BB% HR/9 BABIP LOB% WAR Bert Blyleven 410 406 2826.1 92 88 17% 7% 0.90 0.285 73% 54.5 Don Drysdale 205 203 1487 86 94 17% 5% 0.64 0.269 76% 25.6 Hal Newhouser 187 138 1099 85 88 11% 8% 0.67 0.270 72% 19.9 Catfish Hunter 214 213 1567.2 91 106 12% 6% 1.02 0.239 75% 16.5 Fernando Valenzuela 209 190 1124.1 112 117 12% 10% 0.92 0.285 71% 5.7 Dwight Gooden 192 174 1087 102 103 16% 10% 1.02 0.291 71% 12.7 Joe Coleman 222 100 864.2 114 110 13% 11% 0.90 0.286 69% 5.5 Robin Roberts 446 402 3019.1 96 96 13% 4% 1.13 0.266 73% 43.1 Vida Blue 267 249 1677.1 101 104 14% 9% 0.79 0.271 73% 18.9 Mel Harder 268 232 1715.1 98 100 8% 8% 0.49 0.281 70% 22.6 Pete Donohue 91 61 478 125 103 5% 6% 0.60 0.328 63% 4.3 Milt Pappas 256 233 1554 95 96 12% 5% 0.90 0.281 74% 25.3 Now, obviously these pitchers performed worse and provided less value than before age 27, and that’s to be expected. Only Catfish Hunter managed to see his adjusted ERA improve. Additionally, these pitchers saw their K% decline by roughly 3%, on average, and their HR/9 increase by .25. Another, admittedly crude, way to look at the decline is to compare WAR/100 IP. Here, 11 out of 12 pitchers declined, with only Catfish Hunter being slightly better (+.05). These pitchers also saw their innings decline significantly. Eight out of the 12 pitchers saw their innings drop, relative to before age 26. Five of those eight experienced innings-pitched declines of at least 37%. The Mariners are essentially betting Hernandez can give them an additional 28 WAR through age 33. A quick glance at this list tells us that only two pitchers with a similar workload by age 26 have managed to produce that much value — with a few coming close. This is a long way of saying that, when we think of aging curves for pitchers, age is only one factor. We also need to keep in mind the amount of wear and tear pitchers experience and how that can dramatically impact how much “greatness” a pitcher has left — even for a player as young as Felix. And, to that point, there are some warnings signs for Hernandez: The biggest has to do with that right elbow. Before reports of the questionable MRI and contract clause, there was reason for concern. Like most pitchers, Felix has seen his fastball velocity decline throughout his young career. That isn’t troubling. What is, though, is the rate at which that velocity has fallen. Since PITCHf/x came online in 2007, Hernandez has seen his fastball velocity drop between 4 mph and 5 mph, depending on what data you look at. This applies to both his four-seam fastball and his sinker (which, according to Brooks Baseball, he throws significantly more often):   We know from previous research on velocity and pitcher aging that, on average, starting pitchers lose about .55 mph from their four-seam fastball between ages 21 and 26. Hernandez’s velocity loss is 10 times that amount. We also know that experiencing a velocity loss of at least 1 mph from one season to the next increases a pitcher’s odds of injury, further velocity loss and/or ineffectiveness. Hernandez has had such a decline four out of the past five seasons. Additionally, his sinker’s velocity declined between 1 and 1.5 mph in 2012. However, while Hernandez lost velocity last year his overall velocity trend was more normal than 2011. Pitchers generally gain velocity as the season goes on. In 2011, Hernandez was essentially throwing his sinker the hardest early in April, only to see his velocity steadily decline through September (93.5 vs. 92.9 mph). Last year, Hernandez was only hitting a shade under 92 mph in April compared to 93 mph in September, more what we would expect. That being said, let’s assume Felix’s sinker velocity will average about 92 mph in 2013. But how does that compare to other pitchers between 27 and 33 years old? Well, since 2007, we really don’t have a good comparison. Based on our PITCHf/x data, of the 12 pitchers who rely on their sinkers at least 20% of the time, none throw it as hard as Felix is likely to next year. The closest comparison might be Adam Wainwright, who has thrown his sinker 26.7% of the time and averaged 90.6 mph. Since 2007, Wainwright has averaged a 75 ERA- and 77 FIP-. If we remove the age restriction, we find guys like Chris Carpenter (30.5%, 91.9 mph), Hiroki Kuroda (27.5%, 91.8 mph) and Derek Holland (21.3%, 92.9 mph). Is Felix’s velocity decline troubling? Yes, given what we know about aging and velocity trends. But since Felix does not rely on his four-seamer as his primary pitch, the decline need not be as concerning as if it was happening to a different pitcher. Moreover, that Felix’s in-season velocity trend once again resembled a normal trend is a good sign. This year could be a critical one to determining how this extension will play out. If Felix can hold the line on his sinker’s velocity, it bodes well for his continued dominance. (In fact, his Steamer projection — which takes into account velocity — sees Felix posting a 5.4 WAR season in 2013.) However, if his sinker again declines significantly, it could further signal that Felix is aging at an accelerated rate — or worse, that his elbow in fact is not sound.
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