The Royals are currently 7-1 in Cactus League play and are seemingly gelling well under new manager Matt Quatraro and the revamped Royals coaching staff.
It is nice to see the full Royals Spring Training roster perform well together before many matriculate to their respective country teams for the World Baseball Classic.
A positive for the Royals through the first eight Spring Training games of the season has been the progression and development of many pitchers under new pitching coach Brian Sweeney, assistant pitching coach Zach Bove, and bullpen coach Mitch Stetter. The Royals struggled under former pitching coach Cal Eldred, as they ranked 27th in starter and reliever ERA in 2022, and were one of the worst first-strike throwing teams in baseball since 2018 (Eldred’s tenure).
While there are plenty of more stories to examine and pay attention to this Spring (Brad Keller has gotten off to a good start under the new regime), one particular pitcher who holds some potential in 2023 is Carlos Hernandez.
Hernandez is coming off a rough season in which he posted a 7.39 ERA in 27 appearances and 56 innings of work after a 2021 campaign that saw him produce a 3.68 ERA in 24 appearances (including 11 starts) and 85.2 IP. The 25-year-old seemed poised after 2021 to be a part of the Royals rotation long-term, but he struggled at the beginning of the year as a starter and eventually transitioned to the bullpen after a short demotion to Triple-A Omaha.
Hernandez performed much better in the bullpen last season. However, as Royals fans can see from the splits below, it was far from an “effective” season overall for Hernandez, whether it was a starter or reliever.
So far this Spring, the Venezuelan-born pitcher has performed well as he tries to earn a spot in the Royals bullpen this Spring.
In two appearances, he has struck out five, while allowing only three hits, one run, and one walk in four innings of work. While he is out of Minor League options (for now), performances like this should help Hernandez from being designated for assignment prior to Opening Day.
In addition to showing high-end velocity, Hernandez has also been generating more swings and misses so far in Cactus League play.
Can Sweeney and the Royals coaching staff finally help Hernandez realize his full potential in the bullpen in 2023?
In order for that to happen, what pitches, based on PLV and other pitch metrics, could help him take a step forward as a reliable option in the Royals bullpen not just next year, but beyond as well?
What Does PLV Say About Hernandez’s Pitch Quality?
Since debuting during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Hernandez has primarily relied on four pitches: a four-seamer, a curve, a slider, and a splitter.
Notice in the pitch percentage chart below, via Savant, how consistent his pitch usage has been over the past three seasons.
After utilizing his splitter more in 2020, he lessened the usage of that pitch in 2021 and 2022 while conversely throwing his slider more in those seasons as well. Hernandez has also thrown a sinker, but it’s technically hard to know if it was indeed a sinker or a four-seamer that has been misidentified as a sinker. The movement on Hernandez’s fastball has confused Statcast before in the past, as his early four-seamers were identified as sinkers before being reclassified as four-seamers later in the year.
PLV also identifies those four pitches as his primary pitch mix but also identified a changeup, which Statcast didn’t classify on Savant. Here’s what his PLV pitch distribution looks like for each of the different pitches that Hernandez threw in 2022.
When looking at this distribution, Hernandez basically sports three above-average pitches on a PLV end and two below-average ones. His breaking pitches (curve and slider) as well as changeup profile as his better pitches. On the flip side, his four-seamer rated as a slight-below average pitch, and his splitter as a considerably bad one, based on PLV metrics.
Here is also a look at how Hernandez’s pitches looked last year on a PLA end, which essentially converts PLV into an ERA-esque metric.
It is interesting to see how good his slider rated on a PLV end, as his 2.91 PLA on the pitch ranked the best of the five pitches that Hernandez threw last year. Also, his PLA of 4.19 overall was not that bad, especially when compared to a pitcher like Keller, who also struggled at times in 2022.
Let’s take a look again at Keller’s PLA chart:
Keller had a slightly better overall PLA (4.14), but he had only one pitch with a PLA under four (his slider) and no pitches with a PLA under three. Conversely, Hernandez had one of each (curve and slider).
Based on that data comparison, Royals fans can feel comfortable that Hernandez has at least two pitches that he can depend upon as a relief arm, which is what one wants to see. One can’t necessarily say that just yet of Keller, which makes a possible move to the bullpen questionable (though all indicators seem to point to Keller beginning the year in the rotation).
Run-Value vs. PLV (And the Differences in Splitter and Slider Data)
Now, it is interesting to see how Hernandez’s pitches on a PLV end vary in rating from a run value end, which comes via Savant.
The curve rates as his best pitch on a run value end (which as we all know is more results-related, so it has to be taken with a grain of salt since results don’t always correlate with pitch quality). Furthermore, the pitch was also rated as one of his better pitches on a hard-hit end, wOBA end, and even xwOBA end.
On the flip side, there also seemed to be a consensus on the four-seam, as PLV rated the pitch as below average, and the pitch also produced the highest run value of his four primary pitches a season ago with a +11 mark. In addition to a poor run value, the pitch had the second-highest hard-hit rate of his pitch mix, and also generated the lowest K (6.1 percent) and put away (6.3 percent) rates.
However, Royals fans can see the differences in how PLV views his splitter and slider from Savant.
PLV rated his splitter as his second-worst pitch on a PLA end, and his worst pitch on a pure PLV end. On the flip side, Savant’s run value had the splitter as his second-best pitch with a +2 mark. In terms of whiff and hard-hit rate metrics, the splitter did fare quite well, as it not only generated a put-away rate of 18.5 percent and whiff rate of 30.2 percent, but also an xwOBA of .221 and hard-hit rate of 27.8 percent.
When comparing the pitch heatmap of his splitter on base hits and swinging strikes, one can see the potential of Hernandez’s splitter when he locates it down in the zone (and the danger of when it is not).
With only 28.7 inches of vertical movement and 9.5 inches of horizontal break, splitters being grooved in the zone won’t find success against hitters very often.
Here’s an example of Hernandez losing command of that split-finger against Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies and witness how he launches it for a home run at Coors Field.
While the splitter is a pitch with some up-and-down potential for 2023, the slider also presents the same issue this Spring, though PLV data is more positive about its outlook for this upcoming season.
The slider had the second-worst run value of Hernandez’s pitch mix last year with a +6 mark. However, on a PLV end, it was his best pitch, and the swing and strike data also show that it may be one of Hernandez’s better pitches when it comes to generating whiffs and chases.
Here’s a look at the slider’s plate discipline data via Pitcher List, which also includes MLB averages and percentiles from 2022:
When it comes to generating chases and swinging strikes, the slider rates are in the upper percentiles, which is a good characteristic for a secondary pitch. The pitch isn’t good though on an overall called-strike end, which is a big reason why the CSW rate was only 27.3 percent, which rated in the 24th percentile for relief pitchers last year.
The slider has a lot more velocity and later break, which makes it a nice change of pace from the curve. It also complements his four-seamer well, especially when that pitch is running in the upper 90s or even 100 MPH range.
Unfortunately, though, the pitch would catch too much of the zone in hittable areas, which is a big reason why the zone percentage of the pitch is high, but the called-strike percentage was low. Here’s an example of the slider catching the lower end of the zone and Kyle Garlick of the Twins being able to hit it up the middle for a single.
The slider on a pitch quality end has the potential to be a really dangerous breaking pitch for Hernandez long-term. That said, the command of the pitch has to improve to be more effective, and one has to wonder how that command on the slider will continue to develop this Spring under Sweeney.
Four-Seamer Being the Key
While Hernandez’s secondary offerings will need refinement, what will be the key for Hernandez this Spring and in 2023 is how his four-seamer velocity fares throughout the year.
When comparing his four-seam velocity and his xwOBA charts by month via Savant, it is obvious that as his four-seam velocity increased, his xwOBA decreased consequently.
When taking a look at Hernandez’s Statcast data, of the 20 hardest fastballs he threw in 2022, 14 of those at-bats resulted in positive outcomes with the other four events resulting in hits, and two resulting in walks. That list of outcomes can be seen in the chart below:
Let’s take a look at event no. 5, which was a 100.2 MPH four-seamer that struck out Dodgers slugger Freddie Freeman back in August at Kauffman Stadium.
Thankfully this Spring, the velocity for Hernandez has been evident right from the get-go. And not only is he pumping serious heat with the four-seamer, but he is also generating a decent number of swinging strikes on the pitch as well.
The main development for Hernandez will be his four-seam command, as he needs to elevate the four-seamer to be more effective in the long term.
Here’s a look at the four-seam swinging strike heatmap from last year. While he is throwing a lot of strikes, he could do a much better job in terms of elevating the pitch to generate more consistent success.
The quality of Hernadnez’s four-seamer could help him solidify a role in the bullpen this year, with the potential to be a spot setup guy like Dylan Coleman last season. However, that four-seamer last year, even when generating swinging strikes, was too middle-middle to be effective long-term.
If Sweeney can help Hernandez elevate the four-seamer more in 2023…
Well, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hernandez find a solid spot in the bullpen going forward, perhaps in the 7th and 8th innings with Coleman, Josh Staumont, and Taylor Clarke.
Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images
One thought on “Diving into Carlos Hernandez’s Pitches via PLV and Run-Value (And What It Could Mean for the Royals)”
[…] profile feels very similar to Carlos Hernandez, who flip-flopped between the rotation and bullpen during his time in the Royals system. Will the […]