Honestly, most of us were skeptical the entire time. After years of watching Roberto Hernandez aka Fausto Carmona become one of the most inconsistent pitchers in baseball, maintaining a pattern where he managed an ERA in the 3.00′s one year and in the 5.00′s or higher for the next two, how could he be anything more for the Rays? We know about his sinker, but does he have any other pitches he trusts? We heard Chris Gimenez and Jim Hickey rave about his changeup this spring, but is he really going to trust it once the season begins? As it turns out, the answer to that question is yes. It remains to be seen how Hernandez will do this season for the Rays, but the adjustment has been made and the early returns were quite promising as Hernandez did allow 4 runs in 6.2 innings in his Rays debut but struck out 7 while walking just 2 batters. How did he do it? Let’s look at the Pitch F/X data from Brooks Baseball comparing his start Thursday with the way he has used his pitches in his career up until now (the data is from Brooks, the graph is my creation).
Looking at the lines on the two graphs that denote the pitches’ movement, they look pretty similar, with Hernandez’s slider (the red line) having some more movement than usual on Thursday and his other pitches having a little less. But the real interesting stuff comes in the key. Hernandez threw his sinker just about the same percentage of the time, but he completely ditched his four-seam fastball and relied a lot more upon his breaking pitches, especially his changeup. On both graphs, we can see how Hernandez’s changeup finishes almost exactly like his sinker, making it very effective, and it seems clear that it was a pitch he should be throwing more often, a shift the Rays picked up on and implemented in this game. Also, for his slider we saw the additional movement and the key tells us a major reason why- it was 3 MPH slower than he had thrown it previously. Hernandez decreasing his velocity in the pitch made it not only move more but also gave it addition separation from his fastball, making it more effective on the whole. Hernandez’s sinker and fastball have always been excellent pitches, but hitters have always been able to square them up and lay off of them when they were out of the zone because he was throwing them far too often. With that problem fixed, Hernandez was able to look overpowering at times versus the Orioles and limit the free passes against him as well, striking out 7 while walking 2 in the game.
Hernandez still has work to do- he missed a bit too often with his secondary pitches and hitters didn’t miss them. It’s one thing to make a mistake at 93 MPH and another thign entirely to make a mistake in the mid-80′s. However, if Hernandez can keep his pitch usage similar to his Rays debut and get better movement on his breaking pitches, he’ll not only strike out more batters but become a more complete pitcher than ever and just maybe deliver results reminiscent of his great 2007 when he went 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA on his way to a 4th place finish in the AL Cy Youngvoting. There’s no guarantee that Hernandez can do that, and maybe the league will just adjust to him if he does- but we’re seeing with this exactly what the Rays saw when they decided to sign Hernandez to a major league contract this offseason, and his potential upside could be tremendous.