Roberto Hernandez has come a long way, even changing his name, before settling in as the leading option for the Rays fifth starter. (Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)
When the Tampa Bay Rays signed Roberto Hernandez, formerly known as Fausto Carmona, it was a typical Rays offseason move. Much like Casey Kotchman, Fernando Rodney, Joaquín Benoit and many others before, the Rays were searching for a bargain player who had the potential to be a key contributor in a new city with better player development around him. Fausto was a very good pitcher not that long ago, winning 19 games and logging an ERA just a touch above 3 and inducing a ground ball rate over 64%. The ground ball rate is key, as this is the motor that made Hernandez run at his best when he was one of the best pitchers in the AL for a short window of time.
He would then suffer from a good amount of inconsistency, regaining his previous form at times, but seeing a steady decline in his ground ball ratio. In fact, as ground balls went down, line drives went up, and batters were smacking the ball all around the yard against one of the Cleveland Indians’ best pitchers in recent history. Sounds like I’m arguing against him at this point, doesn’t it?
For Roberto Hernandez to return to “Fausto Carmona in his prime” form, it wouldn’t take much. And for a coaching staff who has drawn the most out of the speculative signings they have made in the past, I wouldn’t count out the possibility of a return to ace-like status for the Rays new hurler. So what is it about Hernandez that needs to return to Carmona-like levels?
As stated previously, he needs to return to his ground ball inducing ways. He was never an extremely lucky pitcher, seeing fairly stable BABIP against in his best years, and having FIP numbers that reveal he was not benefiting from a great defense or fortunate bounces. The main differences in his good years (2007 and 2010) and his poor years were ground ball ratio, and walks per nine innings. If he’s able to keep the ball in the zone, and put the ball in the right place with the right “stuff” to induce ground balls, he’ll see an almost instant return to form. He’d also likely benefit from a renewed focus on his fastball, and a reduction in the amount of changeups thrown. Hernandez was at his worst in seasons where he threw his changeup most often. And while it’s reasonable for a Major League pitcher to have a decent changeup, it might be beneficial for Hernandez to tone down his use of the change and focus on fastball placement and the movement and velocity of his slider.
So why Hernandez over Jeff Niemann? Hernandez has thrice bested Niemann’s career high in innings pitched for a season, and has topped 200 innings twice. These are innings the Rays need in the wake of the James Shields trade, and there is no reason to think that Niemann will deliver those innings. Hernandez, on the other hand, has the potential to be a workhorse in the middle of the rotation, pitching between Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson to break up the Rays young pitchers who tend to leave games early.
Niemann could still command value on the trade market, and has become ancillary due to the rise of Chris Archer and the acquisition of Jake Odorizzi. He’s a talented pitcher with durability concerns, but that won’t stop other pitching hungry teams from offering the Rays decent value for the lanky right hander. The possibility of getting another bat, even a speculative prospect, for an extra starting pitcher should be the plan for the Rays, who have more pitching than MLB team would know what to do with.
At the end of the day, Joe Maddon needs to specifically name Fausto Carmona as the Rays’ 5th starter. 2007 Fausto Carmona, specifically. Because if the Rays work their magic again and resurrect Hernandez’s career, they could have a stranglehold on the best pitching staff in the league in 2013.