The last time Roberto Hernandez felt this good, he was believed to be nine years younger and had a different name, Fausto Carmona. Yes, a lot has changed for Roberto Hernandez since then, but one big thing hasn’t: he still has the ability to be an awfully effective major league pitcher. Joe Maddon and Hernandez both believe that his 2007 level of performance is not unattainable for him this season.
#Rays Maddon Said Hernandez looks similar to 2007 when he was Cy young finalist. Hernandez: “I feel very close.”
— RMooneyTBO (@RMooneyTBO) March 29, 2013
Hernandez’s 2007 season is still his finest in professional baseball as he went 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA, a 5.7 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, a 0.7 HR/9, and a 64.3% groundball rate in 32 starts and 215 innings pitched on his way to a fourth-place finish in the AL Cy Youngvoting. Since then, though, Hernandez hasn’t been nearly as good, putting together a solid season only in 2010 as his career ERA currently stands at just 4.64. He’s always had an overbearing sinker in the mid-90′s but he has never been able to get a consistent secondary pitch behind it, making him never much of a strikeout pitcher and exposing him to much harder contact than a pitcher with stuff as good as his should allow because hitters could sit sinker against him and wait for a mistake. He has only been successful when maintaining an extreme high standard of command down in the zone on his sinker, and with little margin for error it makes sense that his overall results have not been very good. But something other than Hernandez’s name is different now: his changeup has finally come along as a dependable second pitch for him, with both pitching coach Jim Hickey and catcher Chris Gimenez raving about it and Gimenez describing it as Hernandez’s best pitch. With his great sinker, rapidly coming on changeup, and decent slider, Roberto Hernandez is looking like a more complete pitcher than Fausto Carmona ever could be. And with that the case, the Rays can’t wait to see what he can do.
This season, Hernandez is going to continue to live and die with his sinker command, and if he leaves up in the zone too often, he will get hit hard and make the Rays look foolish for signing him and then making him their fifth starter. But if Hernandez can harness his command consistently, even if not at his 2007 levels, he can still be a really good pitcher. Hernandez’s changeup has really come along and expect him to trade some groundballs for strikeouts and win in a different way than he has in the past. Hernandez winning 19 games with an ERA in the low-3.00′s again is a fantasy. But him managing a 6.5 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 is not so crazy, and that amounts to a 3.91 FIP and maybe even a lower ERA with the Rays defense behind him. If Hernandez can manage an ERA anything like that on his way to his third 200-inning season, the Rays will be ecstatic but opposing teams will certainly not be- Hernandez will be only the fifth starter in what looks to be stacked Rays rotation.