Allowing 9 runs on 11 hits in his last spring start was not exactly the final impression that Roberto Hernandez wanted to give Joe Maddon and the Rays as the fifth starter decision approached. The horrific final outing was in sharp contrast to Niemann’s 6 shutout innings one day later, and despite Hernandez looking better than Niemann all spring, his numbers wound up being worse. But it wasn’t the numbers that were behind this decision- it was a tale of two pitchers trending in entirely different directions.
Roberto Hernandez impressed the Rays with his trademark sinker looking as strong as ever and also a changeup that catcher Chris Gimenez actually described as “his best pitch.” Niemann on the other hand, gave everyone a scare as his fastball sat in just the 85-86 MPH range until finally getting up to 88-89 MPH in his last start, and staying in the mid-80’s with far from precise command and control put Niemann’s ability to be a major league starting pitcher seriously in question. All the reasons that Niemann should start were pushed aside because the Rays quite simply were not confident that he could be successful at this point.
Hernandez gives the Rays a pitcher with the ability to seamlessly replace James Shields‘ innings, and while that is something the Rays could have done without him, Hernandez going deep into games will take the pressure off of pitchers like Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore and the security blanket of knowing that Hernandez will be starting even if they can only go 5 or 6 innings in a start could be exactly what they need to relax and take the next step in their development. That will especially true because Hernandez will take the ball in the third spot in the Rays’ rotation, splitting Helilckson and Moore and making it so they don’t have to worry about providing more length and sparing the bullpen if the other doesn’t have a long outing.
Roberto Hernandez’s groundball tendencies will fit perfectly with the Rays’ outstanding infield defense, and his changeup gives him a chance to improve on his career strikeout rate of just 5.4 batters per 9 innings. Worst-case scenario, he’s an innings-eating fifth starter, and if he really has broken through with his changeup, he could make an already-scary Rays rotation even more deadly for opposing teams.
For Niemann, Maddon said that they wanted to put him into long relief to build up velocity, although he did note that he still saw him as a starting pitcher moving forward. Maddon also said that while they think Niemann will get better with time, Hernandez is the fifth starter and they expect him to run with the role. Niemann has to be disappointed but can look no further than Wade Davis last year to see how his career could be revitalized by heading to the bullpen and even help him parlay a starting role for next year. Niemann’s career is far from over, but the Rays showed with this decision that Hernandez is the pitcher they believe in more right now and that with running their priority, they can’t afford to wait to see if Niemann can return to being the pitcher he once was. Both pitchers are talented, but Hernandez’s electric repertoire especially stood out as Niemann’s faltered, and Hernandez became the obvious choice for their fifth starter spot.