There was a lot of hype on Friday that Jackson Kowar was going to make his MLB debut in the second game of the Twins series at Target Field. However, despite the rumors that Kowar was going to get a call up to Kansas City on Saturday, the Royals instead went with Ervin Santana, the 38-year-old veteran who has pitched mostly in relief for the Royals this season.
Santana did as expected in his second start of the season in the Royals’ 6-5 loss to the Twins. He didn’t strike out a whole lot of batters, as he only generated two strikeouts, five total whiffs, and an overall CSW of 26 percent (with his slider generating a 29 percent CSW) in three innings of work. However, Santana didn’t totally melt down, as he gave up three runs on four hits and one walk, which kept them in the game.
Unfortunately for him and the Royals, he did make a mistake pitch to Trevor Larnach that the Twins outfielder mashed for a home run in the second inning:
Despite Santana’s performance, the bigger story of the afternoon was the return of Carlos Hernandez, who was demoted earlier this season after making the Opening Day roster due to control and command issues. Hernandez didn’t have the worst outing of his young career, as he went 4.1 IP, gave up three runs on four hits and two walks, but struck out six total batters. That being said, Hernandez failed to stop the bleeding in a high leverage moment in the fourth inning, as he walked the first two batters he faced (after Santana walked the first batter of the inning). His lack of control led to the Twins getting two runs and the lead, which they wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the year.
Despite an inconsistent performance, there were some promising signs that Hernandez showed in Saturday’s game that should give the Royals and Royals fans hope for the young right-hander, though he will probably get unnecessary grief from frustrated fans who wanted to see Kowar, not Hernandez, pitching in Minneapolis on Saturday. Nonetheless, the Royals need to choose a direction with Hernandez, and stick with it, if they want to maximize his potential and impact on the Royals pitching staff both in the short and long term.
Hernandez’s velocity is the real deal, and that was on full display on Saturday. According to Savant, Hernandez threw the five fastest pitches of any pitcher who threw in Saturday’s contest between both teams, as evidenced below:
In addition, according to Savant, Hernandez generated the most swings and misses of any Royals or Twins pitcher on Saturday with 12. To compare, J.A. Happ of the Twins, who threw 29 more pitches than Hernandez, generated only seven whiffs, which was the second-most of any pitcher on Saturday. Thus, when it comes to generating whiffs, Hernandez may be one of the Royals’ better pitchers, and that is despite having shaky command.
Let’s take a look at Hernandez’s player breakdown from Saturday, courtesy of Savant data:
As one can see, Hernandez’s curve and slider were most effective, as he generated 15 called strikes and whiffs on those two pitches combined. His curve generated a CSW rate of 37 percent and his slider generated a 57 percent CSW, which are both impressive marks. However, let’s take a look at his pitch result chart on those two pitches, and see what those two pitches did overall today against Twins hitters:
On Saturday, when Hernandez kept his breaking balls down in the zone, he was effective, as he struck out four and generated a ground out as well. However, Hernandez also hung his breaking balls too much today, and Twins hitters made him pay. Of the four breaking pitches that sat up in the zone, two were hit for singles, one for a double, and one was a key batted ball that was an error by Carlos Santana, but still brought in a run.
The slider has been a nice addition to his repertoire since being called up, as he did not show a slider when he last was pitching in Kansas City, according to Statcast data. With Hernandez’s high velocity sinker and four-seam fastball, his breaking pitches have a chance to be consistently effective at the MLB level, especially with a 14-16 MPH difference. Furthermore, having a four-to-five pitch arsenal gives Hernandez some versatility, especially if the Royals want to utilize him in the bullpen long-term. Over time, he will probably eliminate or phase out a pitch for the sake of efficiency. But, it’s easier for a pitcher to eliminate pitches rather than trying to add another.
What will be interesting is the development of Hernandez’s changeup, which wasn’t really utilized much today. Despite a lack of usage, it still was effective, as he generated a 33 percent CSW on the pitch (albeit on three pitches). It will be interesting to see if Hernandez will utilize this pitch more in his time in Kansas City, as he is generating a 28.6 percent whiff rate on it currently (he throws the changeup 15.9 percent of the time this season).
To dive and analyze Hernandez’s profile deeper, let’s take a look at how his sinker, breaking ball, and changeup can work together, if located properly.
Here is a glimpse of his sinker, clocking in at 98 MPH on Opening Day against the Rangers, which generates a check swing foul ball from Isiah Kiner-Falefa:
And here is him generating a sword swing on a curve ball which is located down in the zone effectively against the Rangers’ Nick Solak:
And now, let’s take a look at him generating a swing and miss on a changeup to White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal:
The fact of the matter is this: Hernandez has the tools to be a successful pitcher on this Royals pitching staff. Right now, with the arm and health issues of Josh Staumont, there may be no pitcher on the Royals’ current active roster who has more electric stuff than Hernandez. That being said, the Royals aren’t doing Hernandez any favors if they demote him again soon.
The Royals need to invest in Hernandez and let him continue to work through his command issues at one level, and give him a role to focus on as well.
Right now, the Royals seem to be unsure when it comes to the direction to take with Hernandez. They have been working him as a starter in Omaha, and that approach has produced mixed results.
While he posted a K/9 of 9.31 and a K/BB ratio of 4.00 in 19.1 IP with the Storm Chasers, he also gave up a 2.33 HR/9, which contributed to his 5.59 ERA and 5.82 FIP, according to Fangraphs. Right now, Hernandez is just making too many mistakes in his command, which is not surprising considering the highest level he pitched in the Minors prior to this year (and his MLB debut in 2020) was low-A Lexington. Hernandez is still figuring out to pitch, but it’s obvious that he is improving, even if it may be inconsistent.
And thus, Dayton Moore and the Royals need to make a decision on what role they want to give Hernandez. If they want him to be a reliever, then the Royals need him in the pen at the MLB level, and let him work through the ups and downs in command. There won’t be pretty days or moments, as Royals fans saw today and earlier in the season. But when he is on, nobody in the Royals bullpen has better swing and miss stuff. Considering the Royals’ injury issues in the bullpen currently, that kind of potential is important and much-needed, honestly.
That being said, if the Royals think he can be a starter, they need to give him a long-term look in Omaha and let him develop his command and pitch repertoire against Triple-A hitters. Maybe Hernandez’s outlook is better as a reliever than a starter, but if the Royals truly believe he can be a starter, then let him BE a starter long-term. And the better environment for Hernandez to do this would be in Triple-A, not in Kansas City, especially as the Royals hope to compete in the AL Central and don’t have much room anyways in the rotation, especially once Danny Duffy returns off the 10-day IL.
Whatever the Royals choose to do with Hernandez, they need to figure it out soon. Saturday was a key example of the good and bad of Hernandez and his potential. When he’s locating, he can be a bear for hitters, as six strikeouts in 4.1 IP is nothing to shrug at. Furthermore, his diverse pitch mix could be a fit for hitters, when located properly of course.
But Royals fans saw the command issues, which hurt the Royals in a key spot in the game, and pretty much took them out of the contest. Mike Matheny can’t put Hernandez in those situations if the Royals care about his development. Maybe down the road, Hernandez will be ready for those moments. But for now, the Royals need to focus on his long-term future, and that means putting him in lower-leverage situations.
What road will they take with Hernandez? That’s hard to to tell.
But the strikeout ability is there…
And the Royals can’t waste his development or talent because they waited too long to make a decision about how to utilize him in 2020.
Photo Credit: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images