Not long ago, Roberto Hernandez was considered to be an up-and-coming starter for the Cleveland Indians. He was also known as Fausto Carmona. But regardless of what it said across his back, his 3.06 ERA (3.94 FIP), 1.21 WHIP, and his 64% ground ball rate produced 19 wins for the Indians in 2007, and his value was almost four wins above replacement level. He even garnered votes for the American League Cy Young award, finishing fourth overall.
Hernandez battled injuries and serious control problems the following two seasons, put together a solid 2010 campaign, then the wheels kind of fell off. And the axle broke.
A name change, a suspension, and a new contract brings him to Tampa, where the Rays took a flyer on him as their latest reclamation project. He makes his second start of the season today after having an encouraging opening versus the Baltimore Orioles, in which he uncharacteristically struck out seven batters over 6.2 innings pitched, basically getting beaten by Chris Davis. But he only walked two batters and he seemed to have good movement on his signature sinker.
Knowing the Rays had success in tinkering with Fernando Rodney on the mound relative to repertoire and placement, is there anything to be gleaned from Hernandez’s first start? Sound the sample size alarm.
We’ll compare his first start to 2011, since that was his last full season. His repertoire changed in one notable way:
He went to his change-up more than a quarter of the time, leaning a little less on his sinker and fastball. And he actually had pretty good success with the change in that first start (although that’s also the ball that Chris Davis hit out). Overall, the contact rate on his change was just shy of 54%. He generated a 22% swinging strike rate, using it primarily against left handed hitters when ahead in the count.
The part about lefties might be the takeaway here. In his career, he’s been quite hittable when facing left handed hitters and he’s never really had an out pitch, posting a career 11% K rate against them. In a couple of situations, Hernandez actually set up his fastball with a change and showed good life on his four seamer, spotting it here against Nate McLouth and Ryan Flaherty:
Perhaps the increased use of the change is to keep lefties honest, not always preparing for the sinker, we’ll see. If he can find a way to be at least decent against left handed opponents, he’s got a fighting chance.
As far as positioning and delivery, there are a couple subtle things that stand out to me. It’s a little tough with different camera angles to really discern, but a comparison from previous years to this year does show small changes. The first two are images from 2012 and 2011 and the last is from his 2013 start.
The most notable changes appear to be the leg kick and where he’s positioning his hands. The leg kick was much more pronounced in the past and he seems to be holding his hands lower, and closer to his body. In high school, my coach would refer to this as “simplifying your delivery” while all of us pitchers would say it’s just screwing with our delivery. We’ll just have to wait and see if there are any positive outcomes to this. The other real subtle observation is it actually looks like he’s further towards the third base side on the rubber. It’s a matter of a few inches, but it was particularly first-base side in 2012.
All in all, it could be that we have exactly the same pitcher with a new name and a new team. Subtle changes can certainly make differences, and then there’s always the chance of scenery narrative. But for Hernandez, putting his prior transgressions behind him is probably major accomplishment #1. Whether the Rays can bring him back to his former success level with one of the better sinkers in baseball will be an entertaining story to watch.