When the Rays signed Roberto Hernandez to a one-year, $3.25 million contract, we heard that it was a good signing and a lot of teams were thinking of doing the exact same thing. But no matter what the gist was around baseball, it didn’t make sense to us–Hernandez had managed an ERA under 5.00 just twice in his six full years in the leagues. Nevertheles, many Rays fans trusted their team’s decision-making progress after years of turning apparently washed-up players in major assets. However, even the biggest optimist could not say that Hernandez has lived up to expectations. Hernandez has found some moments this season, including a complete game against the Diamondbacks, but no one’s opinion was been awayed. His dominance was transient–every strong start was followed by two disastrous outings–and it reached the point where Rays fans believed somewhere in the back of their heads that the Rays would lose every time he was on the mound. Hernandez has always featured great stuff, but he has never gotten consistent enough results to be anyone’s definition of reliable, and that just isn’t good enough for a team known for its pitching prowess like the Rays. The Rays kept plugging him in the rotation every fifth day, but it was more because of a multiplicity of injuries and Jeremy Hellickson‘a collapse then any mert if of his own. Finally yesterday, though, the Rays gave Hernandez what he had long deserved, demoting him to the bullpen. And the early returns could not have been better. While it was just one game, Hernandez looked like the pitcher the Rays thought they were signing and exponentially more as he dominated the Los Angels of Anaheim.
Hernandez went the final 3.2 innings and did not allow a single baserunner, striking out 7 of the 11 batters he faced. How did he pull it off? Our typical understanding would be that his command was on with his fastball, slider, and especially his changeup, and combining the overbearing movement on his pitches with precise location leaves hitters with few things they can do. If we describe Hernandez’s outing that way, it was just another once-in-a-blue-moon flash of greatness that will quickly fade away from our memories when he gets shelled next time out. But it was not just that. Heading to the bullpen allowed Roberto Hernandez to completely change his approach as a pitcher, and that type of shift may be something that could finally lead to sustained success.
On the season, Hernandez has thrown 55.2% fastballs, 29.7% changeups, and 15.1% sliders according to Brooks Baseball. On Tuesday, though, Hernandez didn’t follow what he had been doing all season to the slightest extent. Of Hernandez’s 42 pitches, just 14 were fastballs, with 15 being changeups and 13 being sliders. Hernandez did go 3.2 innings in the game, longer than one of his starts this year, but he approached hitters without worrying about seeing them a second time around in the lineup and resorted to all three of his pitches right from the get-go. Instead of going after hitters with his fastball knowing that he had to save his secondary pitches for later in the game, Hernandez put everything he had out there on the mound and hitters looked helpless against him. His fastball velocity shot up to as high as 94.5 MPH at one point in the game with his changeup and slider each receiving a 2 MPH bump as well, and adding additional velocity and variety to an already impressive arsenal made him look as good as we have ever seen him. Hitters began adjusting to him in his final 2 innings, striking out just twice, but Hernandez showed all the necessary components of a dominant pitcher for short stints, combining velocity, movement, command, and poise. But is this something that Hernandez can keep up?
Hernandez will not go 3.2 shutout innings every time out. However, he could very will have what it takes to fill the role that Wade Davis played so well for the Rays last season and free up Alex Torres for higher leverage work. Hernandez will likely begin by playing a low-leverage long relief role, saving the rest of the bullpen with the Rays ahead or behind by several runs, but if he pitches will enough, the Rays will have to consider giving a look later in games with Joel Peralta overworked and Jesse Crain taking a while to come back. That may be surprising given how inconsistent he was as a starting pitcher, but we have said since the moment he signed that he could be a weapon out of the bullpen, and on Tuesday, we saw that in action. Heading to the bullpen has revitalized Hernandez and may be exactly what he needed to turn his strong repertoire into results. Over the last month of the season, we will have to see just how far his new role can take him and just how much he can change fans’ the perception of him as he appears out of the bullpen an entirely different pitcher and quite possibly a significantly better one.