One of the more underrated Royals Opening Day stories was Carlos Hernandez making the 26-man active roster, which apparently booted Ervin Santana from making the club on Opening Day (still no idea what his status is with the Royals):
Hernandez was an interesting add, especially considering he did not “wow” Royals fans in Spring Training. In seven appearances and 9.1 IP in Cactus League play, Hernandez posted a 5.79 ERA, 1.61 WHIP, and 1.67 K/BB ratio which included 10 strikeouts and six walks. While the 24-year-old Venezuelan certainly posted some electric stuff in Arizona, his command and control were certainly seen as question marks that some thought would hold him back from making the Opening Day roster.
That being said, it seems like Dayton Moore and Mike Matheny preferred Hernandez’s stuff and potential over Santana’s control and experience, and thus, gave Hernandez the spot in the Royals bullpen as a mop up reliever to begin the year. While Moore added Hernandez to the roster on April 1st, Matheny didn’t waste any time utilizing the young pitcher, as he came in the third inning to relieve Kyle Zimmer, who served as a fireman in the second inning to get out of a jam that was started by Brad Keller (Zimmer struck out two and walked one in 0.2 innings of work).
And thankfully for Matheny, the Royals, Royals fans, and even Hernandez himself, the young pitcher, who made his rookie debut in 2020 despite not pitching above Low-A ball prior, didn’t do too bad as he pitched three innings and ended up getting the win in the Royals’ 14-10 victory over the Rangers. While he did struggle early on in the third inning (he did give up two runs in the third), he shut the Rangers out in the fourth and fifth innings, and he struck out five batters overall while only walking one in his outing.
Furthermore, Hernandez also caught the eye of national baseball fans, especially analytics-inclined ones, as he threw some of the hardest pitches of the day velocity-wise, as pointed out by Statcast:
After topping 100 MPH twice, Royals fans may be wondering two things: 1.) Is Hernandez primed to have a breakout in the Royals bullpen? And 2.) Will Hernandez’s emergence in the bullpen be similar to what Josh Staumont experienced in 2020?
Let’s take a look at how the two correlate, and what Royals fans can take away from Hernandez’s 2021 debut and what that outing could mean for him going forward this season.
The Hernandez-Staumont Correlation
I do know that comparing Hernandez and Staumont may be comparing red apples to green apples of sorts. Hernandez is only 24 and has just 17.2 career MLB IP under his belt. Furthermore, Hernandez had not pitched above Low A Lexington prior to his 2020 debut, which was expedited due to COVID cancelling the Minor League season.
As for Staumont, he is 27-years-old, and has pitched 45 total innings in the Majors, including 25.2 IP a year ago. Staumont also has pitched a little over 300 innings between Triple-A Omaha and Double-A Northwest Arkansas, combined, so he had a lot more Minor League experience when he debuted in 2019, a stark contrast to Hernandez’s journey to Kansas City in 2020.
Lastly, Staumont fluctuated more as a prospect, as he has seen some highs (he was the Royals’ top prospect, according to Baseball America in 2017) and some lows (around the 20’s according to Baseball America) in regard to prospect ranking. As for Hernandez, his ranking has been relatively stable, but with less upside, as he usually ranked in the 10-15 range as a Royals prospect.
However, Staumont and Hernandez will be compared to one another because they are two right-handed pitchers who started out as starting pitcher prospects who could throw 100-plus MPH, but moved to bullpen roles due to troubles with control and command.
Now, to be fair, Hernandez’s future is still to be determined, and while he is currently in the Royals bullpen now, it seems possible that he could garner a rotation (or at least spot starter) spot later in the year or even next season. Staumont on the other hand is for certain a reliever, and though he is still recovering from COVID, it is likely that he will be used in scenarios in the 7th and 8th innings as a setup man.
That being said, despite their differences, they both have electric stuff, and it is possible that Hernandez could follow Staumont’s example in regard to sophomore season performance.
In 2019, Staumont made his MLB debut and pitched 19.1 IP in a late-season September call up. Safe to say, Staumont’s rookie debut was far from impressive. While he did post a 3.72 ERA (not bad), his xERA was 6.63 (not good) and he only posted a 17 percent K rate to go along with an 11.4 walk rate, according to Baseball Savant. Furthermore, hitters hit the ball hard off of Staumont, as he allowed an 8.1 percent barrel rate and 92.2 MPH on batted balls, which demonstrated that hitters were squaring up on him, even if it didn’t produce base hits (.293 BABIP). Thus, it wasn’t surprising that Staumont wasn’t generating much attention going into Spring Training in 2020.
However, the former Azusa Pacific product showcased one big difference in Spring Training in 2020 (before it was shut down): increased velocity. And that increased velocity not only carried over to 2020, but also helped him improve his overall value as a reliever. Staumont increased the velocity from his four-seamer from 95.9 MPH to 98 MPH, and his curve ball from 81.6 MPH to 82.1 MPH from 2019 to 2020, respectively. And while he didn’t pitch it much (just six total pitches), he also increased the velocity on his sinker from 95.7 MPH in 2019 to 99.3 MPH in 2020.
The boost in velocity had just a strong effect overall on his stat line in 2020. His K rate went from 17 to 33 percent from 2019 to 2020, respectively, and his xERA dropped from 6.63 in 2019 to 3.82 in 2020. While there was still a big difference in his xERA and ERA (2.45 in 2020), it was less dramatic than his 2019 difference in those two categories, which was a promising sign.
Thus, it was not a surprise that Staumont produced highlight reels like this from a year ago:
Much like Staumont, Hernandez was added to the roster last year and saw some innings during the later portion of the 2020 season. To compare the two, I took a look at Hernandez’s rookie year metrics, which I thought was fair, especially since Hernandez only pitched roughly five less innings than Staumont did during his rookie season. Thus, I compared Hernandez’s rookie year to Staumont’s rookie year to see how they compared on the six categories I discussed above with Staumont.
- Staumont (2019): 17 K rate; 11.4 BB rate; 3.72 ERA; 6.63 xERA; 8.1 barrel rate; 92.2 EV MPH
- Hernandez (2020): 19.4 K rate; 9 BB rate; 4.91 ERA; 7.36 xERA; 12.8 barrel rate; 91.6 EV MPH
As one can see, Hernandez was more impressive in regard to strikeout rate, walk rate, and limiting exit velocity on batted balls in comparison to rookie Staumont, but was less impressive in regard to ERA, xERA, and barrel rate on batted balls. That being said, considering Hernandez also had a lot less Minor League innings than Staumont, one can pardon Hernandez’s struggles, especially in regard to barrel rate, due to lack of innings as a professional.
While it is only one start, here is where Hernandez is in 2021 on those same metrics and where Staumont finished in 2020:
- Staumont (2020): 33 K rate; 14.3 BB rate; 2.46 ERA; 3.82 xERA; 5.4 barrel rate; 94.4 EV MPH
- Hernandez (2021): 41.7 K rate; 8.3 BB rate; 6.00 ERA; 1.23 xERA; 0 barrel rate; 90.3 EV MPH
Granted, it’s only one outing, but there is a lot to suggest that Hernandez could produce something this season that is akin to 2020 Staumont in terms of value and production. I think Hernandez will probably lag behind Staumont in ERA. However, I like the early returns on Hernandez’s K rates, and his superior BB rates to Staumont could also make him incredibly valuable. It wouldn’t be out of the question to think that Hernandez could have just as much, if not more value than Staumont in 2020 if Hernandez can post a K rate in the 25-30 percent range. While it would be lower than Staumont, Hernandez’s walk rate, which would be in that 8-9 range, would give him more value.
Thus, it will be interesting to see how Hernandez builds on this strong outing to begin 2021. If he continues to gain confidence after this outing, it certainly is possible that he will have a breakout this year in a fashion similar to Staumont a year ago.
What will be key to a Hernandez breakout this year?
So, Royals fans have reason to hope for a “sophomore surge” from Hernandez, much like Staumont a year ago. That being said, what will Hernandez need to do, pitch arsenal-wise, to make that happen?
Honestly, a lot depends on what his third pitch will be, as well as its effectiveness.
Hernandez relies on a four-pitch combo, with his sinker being his primary pitch. He also throws a curve ball, a four-seam fastball, and a changeup, the latter being a pitch he only uses sparingly. However, the changeup, and how it pares with the sinker, could make the difference in regard to a possible breakout for Hernandez in 2021.
Last year, Hernandez threw his sinker 40.8 percent of the time, and the pitch averaged 96.4 MPH, which was his highest velocity pitch. Though the pitch generated the lowest whiff rate of his pitch arsenal (21.6 whiff rate), it generated the highest put away percentage (26.7 percent), and it was the second-best pitch on a wOBA (.308).
As expected, Hernandez relied on his sinker in his Opening Day debut: he threw the pitch 19 total times, a 43.2 percent clip. However, Hernandez saw some considerable gains in the pitch’s effectiveness on Thursday, as he increased his velocity on the pitch from 96.4 MPH in 2019 to 98.2 MPH, and generated a 30.8 percent whiff rate on the pitch. He threw the pitch mostly against lefties, as he threw the sinker 10 times against left-handed Rangers hitters yesterday. In comparison, he only threw the curve five times, and the four-seamer and changeup twice against left-handed hitters.
When Hernandez has command of his sinker, it can be a valuable weapon, especially with the tailing action it possesses. Over the past couple of years, Hernandez has had the most effectiveness with the pitch when painting Zone 4 (outside middle corner). However, the increased velocity could make his primary pitch even more potent, as was the case on Thursday.
Here’s a look at his sinker in 2020, generating a whiff from Tigers hitter Willi Castro:
As you can see, that’s a pretty good pitch from Hernandez: 97 MPH with tailing action away from the left-handed Castro, which causes him to chase outside the strike zone. However, Castro, though solid last year, was a rookie at the time, and this was only the fifth pitch of the game.
Here’s what that same pitch can do, with added velocity, against a more veteran hitter like David Dahl, who was three-for-three going into this at-bat.
Hernandez is able to pump two more MPH on the pitch and locates it perfectly against Dahl, who was raking in this game at this point. In fact, Dahl is in a lose-lose: the movement and speed make it a tough pitch to make contact with, but if he takes it, it’s a called strike three.
Thus, the added velocity on this pitch could be a huge game changer for Hernandez, especially when paired with his changeup.
Here’s a look at zone charts from yesterday from each pitch, and what pitches generated swings and misses, and where in the strike zone.
As one can see from the image, when he kept his sinker and four-seamer up, he was able to generate a ton of whiffs. Furthermore, it paired well with his 87 mph, low spin, changeup, especially when that pitch was kept down in the zone.
Here’s a look at what his changeup is able to do when thrown effectively:
However, he wasn’t perfect with the pitch on Thursday, especially in the third. Here’s a look at his zone chart from balls that were hit in Thursday’s game against the Rangers:
And this is what the result was on that pitch, which ironically came against Dahl as well:
Thus, when Hernandez loses command of the pitch, things can go south quickly. However, his changeup definitely works best with the sinker, and that even stems back to last year, as he threw the pitch 15.3 percent of the time, and generated a 30.3 percent whiff rate on the pitch in 2020.
What makes it so effective is the huge difference not only in velocity, but spin as well. In addition to a 12 mph difference in velocity between the sinker and changeup, there is also about a 950 rpm difference between his sinker and changeup, which is a considerable and advantageous difference for Hernadnez.
Hence, in pitcher-friendly counts, that can be a great weapon…if he locates it well and down in the zone. That will be important to pay attention as Hernandez gains more experience at the MLB level.
What to look for from future Hernandez outings
It will be interesting to see if Hernandez perhaps lessens the usage of his curve in favor of his changeup. There is an even greater drop in velocity between his sinker and his curve (16 MPH difference roughly). However, hitters posted a wOBA of .555 on the pitch in 2020, and things weren’t much better on Thursday: hitters posted a .620 wOBA on the pitch, the highest wOBA allowed of any his pitches on Opening Day.
One of the issues with his curve is that he just hangs it too much in the zone. Let’s take a look at his curve ball zone chart and the contour from 2020, according to Baseball Savant.
That deep read mark is not where a pitcher wants to be with his curve, especially when it hangs around 82 MPH. In fact, let’s take a look at what the Rangers did when Hernandez hung a curve up in the third inning with the bases loaded, which brought in two runs and extended the Rangers’ lead temporarily:
Hernandez may be better off utilizing his sinker, changeup, and four-seam fastball as his primary three pitches, and use the curve more as a low-usage piece. In fact, Hernandez only threw it 27.3 percent in Thursday’s game, which is already lower than what it was in 2020. Thus, it will be interesting to see if that usage continues, and whether or not his changeup sees an uptick in usage, especially considering the effectiveness and uniqueness the pitch showed in limited samples.
Because if Hernandez can really hone his command on the changeup, then it is possible that Hernandez could really break out in 2021…
And not just be another Staumont, but maybe something even more valuable by season’s end…
Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sport