August 11, 2011; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Fausto Carmona (55) throws in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric P. Mull-USA TODAY Sports

How Does the Rays' Signing of Roberto Hernandez Make Any Sense?

2012 was undeniably a lost year for Roberto Hernandez. In January, authorities found out that he was in the US under a false identity, Fausto Carmona, and he was stuck in the Dominican Republic as he tried to get a new visa. He finally received it in July but had to serve a three week suspension from Major League Baseball. He finally made his season debut on August 15th and wound up making just three terrible starts, managing just a 7.53 ERA and striking out just 2 while walking 3 in 14.1 inning pitched before an ankle injury ended his season. For his efforts, Carmona wound up making 3 million dollars. And despite such a horrific season, he will actually receive a raise next season after the Rays signed him to a 1-year worth 3.25 million dollars with 1.85 million dollars available in incentives.

What are the Rays thinking? They signed Hernandez to replenish their pitching depth after the trade of James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals, and he could start games for them while giving pitchers like Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi more time to develop. He could also allow them to trade Jeff Niemann if he can prove himself healthy and effective in spring training of next year. If they keep Niemann, he could go to the bullpen and work in a long relief role and if he pitches well he could occupy the role that Wade Davis filled in 2012. Fine, all of that is great, but none of that matters if he can’t pitch effectively.  Why did the Rays guarantee him so much money, especially by their standards, if that’s question mark?

For his career, Hernandez is just 53-69 with a 4.64 ERA (90 ERA+), a 5.4 K/9, a 3.5 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 949 innings pitched. His career FIP is right in line with his ERA, coming in at 4.57. The good news with Carmona is that he has two good seasons as a starting pitcher under his belt. Back in 2007, he went 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA, a 5.7 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 32 starts and 215 innings pitched, finishing 4th in the AL Cy Young voting, while in 2010 he went 13-14 with a 3.77 ERA, a 5.3 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 33 starts and 210.1 innings pitched. Hernandez’s groundball rate of 64.3% in 2007 is still the highest of his career, but his career mark is still great at 58.5%. But while it’s nice to keep the ball on the ground, Hernandez has missed very few bats and still allows his share of home runs. Hernandez is moving to a team that has been known for its defense in the Rays, but what’s so exciting about a pitcher like him that the Rays will be willing to outbid other teams for him by committing over 3.25 million dollars not counting incentives? The answer is that the statistics overlook Hernandez’s pure stuff.

Hernandez’s average fastball velocity for his career is 93.59 MPH according to Brooks Baseball. It’s an electric pitch with great downward movement that hitters struggle to elevate when he has it right. But Brooks Baseball divides Hernandez’s fastball into a “fastball” and a “sinker” and that’s the root of his problems as sometimes he doesn’t get on top of it as well and he leaves it up in the zone, and that’s when he gets hit hard. If the Rays can help him improve on that, it could be an even better pitch moving forward and get his homer rate into the range it should be for such a groundball-heavy pitcher.

Hernandez has thrown his fastball 71% of the time according to Brooks Baseball, using the other 29% on his changeup and slider. Hernandez’s changeup, which he throws pretty hard at an average of 86.55 MPH, has actually been his best pitch when he has thrown it, being his pitch that he threw for a strike the most often (66.14% of the time), generates the most swings-and-misses (16.42% of the time he threw it), and is right there with his sinker for his best groundball pitch (3.58 to 1 groundball to flyball ratio). Nevertheless, Hernandez used it just 16% of the time. If Hernandez used it more, it would likely not be as good, but it still looks like a plus pitch and could potentially help him strike out more batters. The Rays’ specialty in their organization is the changeup, and they’re likely confident that they can help Hernandez develop his changeup as a reliable weapon. Then there’s Hernandez’s slider at 86.38 MPH, which has been a poor pitch for him, managing just 9.56% whiff rate (league average around 15%) and also just a 1.37 to 1 groundball to flyball ratio. However, the interesting thing with Hernandez’s slider is that he has thrown it harder the last few years than when he was successful back in 2007. In 2007, it averaged just 84.30 MPH while by 2010 it was all the way up to 87.61 MPH. The Rays could try tinkering with his slider’s velocity to see if he could possibly get more use after it. Worst-case scenario, though, it’s a usable third pitch. There is definitely a baseline for the Rays to work with Hernandez on, his sinker and changeup, and with those two plus pitches along with the halfway-decent the Rays could potentially be looking at a number three starter type if everything goes well.

The Rays have a penchant for taking struggling relievers and completely turning them around. A common factor between so many of those relievers, like Fernando Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth, and Joaquin Benoit, is that they came to Tampa Bay with electric stuff and the Rays found a way to bring it out more and make them more effectively. Robeto Hernandez is a pitcher in the same mold, but his upside is more significant as he has proven himself already as a durable starter, going over 200 innings twice, and if they can refine his already-impressive repertoire, they could end up with not just a reliever but an above-average major league starting pitcher. With the higher potential regard comes increased monetary risk in the form of the 3.25 million the Rays are committing to Hernandez. Giving him so much money seems like the type of gamble the Rays would never take- but they believe in Hernandez’s abilities and their coaching staff’s ability to smooth them out and by the end of the season, this contract could look like a stroke of genius.

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