Roberto Hernandez Heading to the Bullpen–Can He Succeed?

By Robbie Knopf

The Rays signed Roberto Hernandez in the offseason for $3.25 million hoping that he could overcome years of poor performances and his idenity crisis to revert back into an effective starting pitcher. It was a calculated gamble, but it did not work out. Hernandez’s 6.5 strikeouts per 9 ininings, 2.0 walks per 9 innings, and 3.30-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio are all career-highs. But the 1.4 home runs per 9 innings he allowed are also a career-high and his 52.9% groundball rate is a career-low, and the result has been just a 6-13 record and a 5.00 ERA in 23 starts and 136.2 innings pitched. He is third in the American League in losses for the team with the second-best record in the AL. Instead of reclaming his former glory, he has embarrassed everyone involved. Yet because of the Rays’ run of injuries to their starting pitchers this season, Hernandez has ranked second on the Rays in games started with 23, trailing only Jeremy Hellickson. Finally now, though, Hernandez’s reign of terror against the Rays’ postseason hopes will finally come to an end.

According to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, the Rays are going to use Thursday’s off-day to skip Hernandez in their weekend series versus the Yankees, using Chris Archer, David Price, and Alex Cobb on normal rest instead. Topkin writes that there’s a chance Hernandez has made his last start as a Tampa Bay Ray, and even if he hasn’t, he will almost certainly move to the bullpen when Matt Moore comes off the DL. Jake Odorizzi could be an option for a spot-start if need be after starting on Monday. The Roberto Hernandez experiment has run its course and the Rays are ready to move on. But now that Hernandez is going to be demoted to the bullpen, what can he give the Rays?

According to Brooks Baseball, Hernandez’s average two-seam fastball velocity this year has been 92.25 MPH, down from its peak of the mid-90’s a few years back. If Hernandez heads back to the bullpen and works in shorter stints, there’s a real chance that he could regain his previous velocity. And while Hernandez has struggled this season, he has also proved that he’s much more than simply a sinkerballer. He has relied on his changeup more than ever this season, and it has shown great arm action and devastating late fade as it has emerged as a real weapon, forcing a 15.0% whiff rate and a 3.04-t0-1 groundball to flyball ratio. It would be even better in relief. His slider has been by far his worst pitch, but he will be able to scrap it and work simply with his sinker and changeup. With a 95 MPH fastball and a dominant changeup, Hernandez has the ability to be an excellent pitcher and maybe even one that could work in high-leverage situations. Of course, Hernandez has always had great stuff yet has gotten inconsistent results his entire career. But Hernandez does have the ability to be extremely effective in a Wade Davis-type relief role and free up Alex Torres into more higher-pressure situations.

Roberto Hernandez’s one-year contract that he signed with the Rays entailed two different sets of incentives, one based on innings pitched and another based on relief appearances. They weren’t committed to him as a starting pitcher until the very end of spring training. And even though Hernandez’s first path has ended in a dead end, maybe a the other path could still show promise. The Rays can’t change the damage that Hernandez has done to their season in a starting role. But maybe he could at least make up a sliver of the difference with his work in relief over the last five weeks of the season.