Among the many thousands of possible batter-pitcher matchups, there may not be a more entertaining one than Adrian Beltre vs. Felix Hernandez.Merely calling it a matchup feels insufficient. It's a friendly rivalry between former teammates, a battle of wits between two intense competitors, and frequently, a comedy act surpassing any
Among the many thousands of possible batter-pitcher matchups, there may not be a more entertaining one than Adrian Beltre vs. Felix Hernandez.
Merely calling it a matchup feels insufficient. It's a friendly rivalry between former teammates, a battle of wits between two intense competitors, and frequently, a comedy act surpassing any between-innings mascot hijinks.
It is scheduled to resume on Friday, when Hernandez is lined up to take the ball as his Mariners face Beltre's Rangers for the first time in 2018, at Globe Life Park.
What will these two legends have in store for this latest edition of their long-running two-man show?
"For me, it's fun because obviously we have a little friend/enemy-type thing going on," Beltre said. "We both like to face each other. I know he is going to come after me. He wants to get me out, and I want to make sure I get a good at-bat against him."
Beltre and Hernandez developed a bond as teammates in Seattle from 2005-09, and each of their 67 plate appearances against each other have come since then. They have been division rivals since Beltre joined the Rangers in '11, their rapport with each other remaining clear even as professional pride and competitive fire demand that they clash with nothing less than full effort.
This dynamic has led to a bounty of exquisite improv comedy skits. They have playfully jawed at each other as Beltre runs down the first-base line, back to the dugout after a long out, or over by the Mariners' dugout to chase a foul popup. Once, back in 2010, their good-natured trash talking over a friendly bet even got Beltre ejected due to a misunderstanding with an umpire. Another time, Hernandez caught a Beltre line drive to end an inning, then underhand tossed the ball back to his friendly rival. It's always something.
"It's just between me and him," Hernandez said. "After that, I just flip the switch. It's special to play against him. He's like my big brother. It's always fun to face him."
As entertaining as those episodes are, they are just part of a fierce head-to-head competition. Hernandez may have embraced Beltre by home plate last July 31 -- before their first confrontation after Beltre joined the 3,000-hit club -- but it was quickly back to business afterward.
"It is fun, but I always want to beat him even though I know if he gets the best of me, I'm going to hear from him after the game," Beltre said.
"I always hope, even though I love the guy, I am always going to try and beat him."
In one way, Hernandez has enjoyed the clear upper hand. The 39-year-old Beltre is batting only .232 and slugging .304 against him, hitting his only home run back in 2011 and his only other extra-base hit (a double) two years later. Since going 7-for-14 in '13, Beltre is just 3-for-27 (.111).
"You know why?" Hernandez asked. "Because he just wants to hit a homer against me. He just wants to swing hard."
Beltre vs. Hernandez, career
BB: 10 (plus 1 HBP)
Whiffs/pitch: 17/284 (6.0 percent)
Beltre vs. Hernandez, since 2015
BB: 7 (plus 1 HBP)
Whiffs/pitch: 1/121 (0.8 percent)
But those basic numbers obscure a much more interesting and hotly contested duel being waged between the two.
For one thing, the 21 batted balls that Beltre has put in play against King Felix since Statcast™ began tracking in 2015 have averaged a sizzling 90.4 mph exit velocity, with 42.9 percent classified as hard-hit (95+ mph). At least a few have been long, loud fly balls. Factoring in his quality of contact, based on exit velocity and launch angle, Beltre has posted a .325 expected batting average and .457 expected slugging percentage against Hernandez during that time.
Those metrics support the unique caution with which Hernandez has approached Beltre in recent years. Consider these facts, which date back to 2015:
• Beltre has walked seven times in 30 plate appearances. During that span, Hernandez hasn't walked another batter more than five times; Beltre hasn't drawn more than five walks against another pitcher.
• Just 34.7 percent of pitches between the two have been in the strike zone, compared with Hernandez's average of 45.1 percent, and Beltre's average of 46.9 percent.
• Beltre has swung at just 30.6 percent of pitches from Hernandez, compared with his overall average of 47.5 percent, and Hernandez's overall average of 46.8 percent.
Gif: Beltre vs. Felix
"He's a tough out," Hernandez said, hinting at the thinking behind his nibbling. "Before, he had some holes, but now he's getting older and he's a better hitter now. You just can't miss with anything. You cannot make any mistakes, because he's going to hit it out of the ballpark or hit a double. He's tough to pitch against."
These factors have helped produce the duel's most eye-popping number: Of the 121 pitches that Hernandez has thrown Beltre since the start of 2015, he has swung and missed at one. Yes, one.
That's a swinging-strike rate of 0.8 percent. Even as his performance has faded somewhat in recent years, Hernandez has posted an overall rate of about 11 percent -- near the MLB average. Beltre, not a prolific whiffer, is at about 8 percent during that time.
Since 2015, 30 hitters besides Beltre have seen at least 50 pitches from Hernandez, and each has missed on a swing multiple times. Beltre has seen at least 50 pitches from 20 pitchers besides Hernandez and whiffed multiple times against each one.
"He doesn't swing and miss that much," Hernandez explained. "You can throw it in the dirt, and he'll just foul it off. He's a tough out. He's a great hitter."
So how did Beltre's one miss -- out of 37 total swings -- come about? In true Felix-vs.-Beltre fashion, it was one chapter in a playful back-and-forth.
On Aug. 31, 2016, the first pitch Hernandez threw to Beltre was a wild slider that backed up and nearly hit Beltre, who got a good laugh out of it while staring back at Hernandez in mock disbelief. On the very next pitch, Hernandez came back with a pitch below the zone and less than a foot off the ground. Beltre swung over the top of it. Four pitches later, he golfed a low slider for a long out to center field, as the two yelled at each other until Beltre made it back to the dugout.
These "frenemies" will face off again on Friday, but it's possible there won't be many of these duels left. Hernandez, with more than 2,500 big league innings on his arm, has battled health issues, declining velocity and bouts of ineffectiveness over the past few years. As productive as Beltre remains, he turned 39 in April and is in the final year of his current contact.
So when it comes to this magnificent matchup, appreciate it while you can.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.
MLB.com reporters Greg Johns and T.R. Sullivan contributed to this report.