Sarasota, Florida — Félix Hernández readily acknowledged when he first signed with the Orioles last month that he wasn’t the same pitcher who dominated for a decade with the Seattle Mariners. That was several ticks on his fastball ago, and he’s had to learn how to pitch differently.
After his first Orioles spring training start Saturday night against the Detroit Tigers, it’s clear just how drastic those changes to his repertoire might be.
Hernández, 34, appeared to be throwing a heavy diet of fastballs in the 84-86 mph range. This time last year, he was in the upper-80s with fastball velocity. When he last pitched in the majors in 2019, Hernández averaged 89 mph, according to MLB’s Statcast data.
Hernández allowed two runs thanks to a pair of second-inning walks coming around to score Saturday, but there were times when his fastball was effective. When he kept it low, he often got swings or softer contact.
It topped out at 87 mph on his last batter of the first inning, when he struck out Niko Goodrum swinging on an 85 mph fastball. Despite the lack of velocity, he still got five swinging strikes on his fastballs out of 33 pitches.
His other strikeout to lead off the second inning came on a breaking ball at 78 mph; it appeared that Hernández was featuring his curveball in the 76-78 mph range, and Tigers hitters were more aggressive with those pitches than the fastballs. He said he threw one slider and stayed away from his changeup, which was once his signature out pitch.
Hernández said he “didn’t pay attention” to the velocity but noted it was his first outing after a year off — he opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns. But he said he was happy to pitch again after such a long layoff and is focused more on pitching in the zone than throwing harder. He acknowledged that he started rushing to the plate and flying open when he issued two walks on nine pitches in the second inning.
Manager Brandon Hyde said he thought Hernández “did a really nice job” of mixing speeds, and was heartened that he came off the mound healthy after not pitching in a game for a year.
Hernández has been in that mid-80s range with his fastball so far in camp, Hyde said, and while he thinks it could increase as the veteran right-hander builds his arm back up, Hyde still thinks he can be effective pitching that hard.
“He knows how to pitch,” Hyde said. “He knows how to add and subtract, he knows how to pitch in and out. He can pitch behind in the count, with off-speed. … This guy has done it for a long time and knows how to pitch and knows how to get people out.”
Hernández said earlier this spring that injuries in his past few years sapped both his effectiveness on the mound and his joy for the game toward the end of his time in Seattle. Watching him warm up and linger in the dugout to support and chat with teammates around his outing Saturday, it clearly looks like the happiness part is back.
The next three weeks will, provided he remains healthy, dictate whether he’s able to pitch this way successfully and extend his career with the Orioles.
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“Every time, every day, I keep working in my bullpens and my flat-grounds,” Hernández said. “I’m going to be better at the end of the spring.”
Second time’s a charm
Jorge López was the first Orioles rotation/bulk candidate to get a second outing, and Saturday went far better than the first. Hyde noted that the second inning was better than the first for López and so many others who had two-inning stints in the first week of the spring since first-outing jitters were out of the way.
López was much more in control Saturday, striking out three in three shutout, one-hit innings behind Hernández.
The two aren’t in direct roster competition, but López needs to make the team to avoid passing through waivers as he’s out of minor league options. If the Orioles are going to try and use as many stretched-out pitchers as possible to lessen the burden on their starters in this six-month season, López is someone they’ll want to keep around.
Camp reserve reliever Zach Muckenhirn pitched well in this year’s Puerto Rican Winter League, but walked all three batters he faced in his spring debut before giving way to knuckleballer Mickey Jannis in the eighth inning.
Jannis wasn’t hit hard, but allowed those three runs and one of his own to score. The Tigers just stuck their bats out and the balls found outfield grass. But the nature of the fickle knuckleball meant the movement at times was too strong and one of the runs came when one got past catcher Austin Wynns.
The veteran knuckleballer has been bringing his big catcher’s mitt all over the proverbial baseball landscape to try and break into the big leagues. This camp is his best shot yet. But a good knuckleball can sometimes be too good, and chaos can ensue.