The Royals won in dramatic fashion on Saturday night in Anaheim, as they came back to win 11-8 to snap a seven-game losing streak.
There were plenty of positive stories to take away from the Royals’ dramatic win.
The offense went 7-for-14 with runners in scoring position. Hunter Dozier collected three hits, including a two-RBI single that essentially gave closer Scott Barlow some breathing room in the ninth. Aroldis Chapman continued to throw heat and dominated the Angels lineup. And lastly, Barlow looked more like “vintage” Barlow, as he struck out two and made an incredible bare-handed play on a Shohei Ohtani groundball to end the game.
Unfortunately, there were some “concerning” developments in the game, with the continued struggles of the bullpen beyond Chapman being the primary one.
The Royals bullpen ranks 29th in ERA and 28th in WHIP, as of Sunday, according to Fangraphs, which is a big concern considering many Royals fans felt that this group would be better after a lackluster run under former pitching coach Cal Eldred.
Two relievers primarily struggled on Saturday: Jose Cuas, who allowed a two-run home run in the 8th inning that gave the Angels the lead (at the time); and Carlos Hernandez, who gave up two runs on three hits in the sixth inning, which allowed the Angels to tie up the game (though they tied it up on a bizarre balk call which gave Zach Neto a second chance after initially popping out to end the inning).
I am not going to focus on Cuas in this post, as I am not sure how much longer Cuas will be up at the MLB level for now. Rather, I want to focus on Hernandez, who’s been struggling lately and drawing the ire of frustrated Royals fans who had high hopes for him after an impressive stint in the Venezuelan bullpen during the World Baseball Classic.
The peripheral stats for Hernandez aren’t good right now.
Going into Sunday’s game, Hernandez is posting an 8.64 ERA and 1.92 WHIP in nine appearances and 8.1 IP this season. In fact, his -0.3 fWAR is tied with Ryan Yarborough for the lowest fWAR among relievers so far in 2023, according to Fangraphs.
And yet, while those numbers may make Royals fans cringe, there are still some positives to take away from Hernandez’s start to the season.
In fact, in this post, I look at how he could be due for some positive regression soon, as long as he makes some necessary adjustments in his command and pitch mix in the coming weeks.
Where Hernandez Has Improved
It’s easy to focus on the ERA and WHIP numbers and think it’s all been bad for Hernandez so far in 2023. However, a deeper dive into his metrics demonstrate that there are some signs of hope this year for the 26-year-old Venezuelan reliever, as long as he can make some minor adjustments.
First off, Hernandez has done a good job this year in terms of producing more chases and first-pitch strikes, which were two areas he had struggled with not just last year, but in 2021 as well.
Here’s a look at Hernandez’s plate discipline numbers via Savant, and pay close attention to the dramatic increases in both chase percentage and first-strike percentage from the previous seasons.
In terms of “raiding the zone”, Hernandez has been a significantly better pitcher than in seasons past.
His zone percentage is up 7.5 percent; his edge percentage is up 0.2 percent; and his first pitch strike percentage is up 6.9 percent. That shows that pitching coach Brian Sweeney, assistant pitching coach Zach Bove, and bullpen coach Mitch Stetter have had a positive impact in helping coach Hernandez to throw more strikes this season.
In addition to getting more early strikes against batters, he also has been much better at generating swings out of the zone as well.
For his career, Hernandez has produced a chase rate of 25.6 percent. This year, he is producing a chase rate of 30.3 percent, which is four percent better than the rate he produced a season ago in that category.
Hernandez’s most successful pitch to get chases with this year has been his slider, which he throws 26 percent of the time and is producing an O-Swing percentage of 56 percent, according to Pitcher List.
Here’s a look at all the whiffs Hernandez has generated with his slider this year via his pitch heatmap from Baseball Savant. Notice how many of those sliders have been out of the strike zone.
Here’s an example of Hernandez getting that slider to break in on left-handed hitter Josh H. Smith of the Rangers, which causes Smith to chase and strike out as a result.
When it comes to chase rate, his improvement can be tied to the effective use of his slider, which is producing a 39.5 percent CSW rate, 44.4 percent whiff rate overall, and 42.9 percent two-strike O-Swing percentage. The slider has essentially become Hernandez’s go-to pitch when it comes to striking batters out in 2023.
In terms of getting early strikes? That can be more tied to his four-seam fastball.
Here’s a look at Hernandez’s strike data via Pitcher List, and how it ranks percentile-wise across the league:
As Royals fans can see in the data above, his early-count strike percentage (ECS%) and first-strike percentage (F-Str%) rank in the 76th and 70th percentiles, respectively. For context, Hernandez’s ECS% was 18.8 percent last year and his F-Str% was 55.4 percent as well. Hence, he has seen a 10.4 percent and a 7.3 percent increase in those respective rates, which shows the impact Sweeney and the Royals coaching staff have had on Hernandez.
The overall whiff rate isn’t much greater on the four-seamer this year in comparison to 2022, as the 17.8 percent whiff rate on the four-seamer is the exact same rate as last season. On just the general strike end though, his four-seamer CSW rate is 27.4 percent this year, which is an improvement on the 23.5 percent CSW he posted a year ago.
In addition to showing more control with the four-seamer, Hernandez has also added more velocity with the pitch, which has made the pitch effective when it is located properly.
As of Sunday, he is averaging 99 MPH on the four-seamer, which is a career-high in four-seam velocity for him at the Major League level, which can be seen in the chart below:
And it’s not just the velocity of the four-seamer that has improved, but spin and movement on the pitch as well.
Notice in the chart comparison below how Hernandez’s four-seamer has not just seen a considerable increase in average spin from the previous spin, but a similar increase in the vertical break of the pitch as well.
I will talk a little bit more about the issues of his pitch command in the next section, for his ability to “raid the strike zone” too much has made him a bit predictable, despite his premium velocity and spin.
However, when he is able to command his four-seamer up in the zone, he is able to produce swings and misses with ease, especially when they are touching 100 MPH.
His swinging strike heatmap below shows that he can be tough to hit when he locates his four-seamer properly in the upper part of the zone.
And here’s a clip of Hernandez hitting that top “red” part of the heatmap with his four-seamer against Minnesota’s Carlos Correa on Opening Day. The premium location and velocity on the pitch get Correa to swing and miss.
The more Hernandez can pound that four-seamer in that zone, the more successful he will be with the pitch, especially on a swinging-strike and overall CSW end.
Where Hernandez Has Struggled
Surprisingly, Hernandez’s struggles aren’t tied to his pitch quality. According to Pitcher List’s PLV data, Hernandez is posting an overall PLV of 5.37, which puts him in the upper 48th percentile when it comes to the quality of his pitch arsenal.
In fact, based on his PLV charts from 2022 and 2023, Hernandez has seen considerable growth in the quality of all of his pitches from last season to this season.
This season, Hernandez is producing a PLV of 5.37, which is a 0.42-point improvement from his PLV in 2022. Surprisingly, the PLV of his curveball has seen the most improvement, as it has a PLV score of 5.60, which is better than the 5.11 mark that the curve produced last year.
Hernandez’s curveball seems to have potential in terms of its shape, movement, and velocity. Unfortunately, the results have been far from encouraging to say the least.
Here’s a look at his expected wOBA on his curveball since 2020, and notice the big spike from 2022, as Hernandez’s curveball is allowing an xwOBA of .603, as of Sunday.
On an xwOBA end, the curve was a very effective pitch for Hernandez in 2021 and 2022, as it produced xwOBA numbers below .300 in those seasons. That has been a different story in 2023, as it is not only nearly double his marks in 2021 and 2022 but also nearly 200 points higher than his xwOBA on the curveball during his rookie season in 2020.
Hernandez has kept the curveball down against opposing hitters, but it’s often not down “enough”, which has often produced a lot of hits. Opposing hitters’ success on the pitch can be seen in his zone wOBA chart on the curveball this season, via Savant.
Those deep red zones immediately stick out which is not a good thing, as it means that hitters are connecting often and loudly with curveball pitches thrown by Hernandez in those zones.
Here’s an example from Saturday’s game where Hernandez throws a curveball low in the zone, but not low enough, to Angels slugger Hunter Renfroe. Not surprisingly, Renfroe makes him pay for hanging the pitch.
Hence, while the curveball is an intriguing pitch that has helped Hernandez find success in the past, it hasn’t produced positive results so far this season. And the primary reason could be tied to his command of the curveball, as he has often hung it in hittable areas of the strike zone far too often.
But then again, that could be the case for any Hernandez pitch this year, which leads to his main struggle this year:
Overall pitch command.
Now, there is a difference between control and command for a pitcher.
Control relates more to walks allowed and strikes that are thrown. In terms of control, Hernandez has demonstrated some good progress in 2023.
Command on the other hand is pitching the ball in areas of the strike zone where opposing hitters won’t do damage. Throwing the ball in the middle of the strike zone far too often is a sign of POOR command.
And unfortunately, Hernandez’s command HAS NOT been good this year, which is primarily illustrated in his zone wOBA chart from this season, via Savant.
Somehow he’s been doing okay in middle-middle pitches this year. But in terms of pitches on the glove side or the arm side middle of the strike zone? Hitters are producing ridiculous wOBA numbers thus far this year.
And that’s the dilemma with Hernandez.
The pitch quality and control are both present this season. But until he can keep the ball out of the meaty part of the zone on a consistent basis, he will fail to find success on the mound in Kansas City this season and beyond.
What Is the Outlook?
The Royals need bullpen help, and unfortunately, there are not a whole lot of reinforcements right now in Omaha.
Collin Snider, Nick Wittgren, Dylan Coleman, Brooks Kriske, Ryan Weiss, Andrez Nunez, and Evan Sisk have all flashed potential out of the pen for the Storm Chasers, but they have failed to produce consistent results in Triple-A this year.
And thus, while two to three of those names listed above will eventually matriculate to Kansas City at some point in 2023, none of them have the upside that Hernandez has, even amidst Hernandez’s struggles this season with the Royals.
Therefore, Matt Quatraro and the Royals have to be patient with Hernandez, for he will probably have a heightened role in the bullpen once Chapman and maybe Barlow are traded at some point this season. While saying that Hernandez will need to slide into the closer role this year may be rash, the Royals do need him to have a key role in some capacity in the late innings and in higher leverage opportunities later in the season.
Hernandez does fare somewhat okay in some advanced metrics compared to other relievers, especially on an xFIP end. He ranks seventh overall for all Royals relievers this year in terms of xFIP, according to Fangraphs. That is much better than his 13th ranking in terms of fWAR.
Surprisingly, Hernandez ranks better than Amir Garret, Josh Staumont, Ryan Yarbrough, and Coleman in the category of xFIP, as of Sunday.
Also, in terms of Stuff + (Eno Sarris’ pitch quality metric), Hernandez ranks only behind Chapman, which is pretty impressive considering how dominating Chapman has been out of the bullpen for the Royals.
Stuff + evaluates very similarly to PLV. Thus, it’s nice to see that on a pitch quality end, Hernandez is seeing some positive trends and consistency among different “pitch quality evaluation” metrics.
Therefore, there’s no reason why Royals fans should be panicking about Hernandez or thinking that he needs a demotion to Omaha as of yet. Pitch command is always an endeavor for pitchers that’s easier said than done. That being said, if Hernandez can find more consistency in the command of his pitches, and lessen those pitches in the “meatball” areas of the zone, he most likely will see some positive regression in his peripheral metrics (i.e. ERA, WHIP, fWAR) soon.
If he can iron out those command issues a bit with the help of the coaching staff, string together some solid outings, and lessen those “meltdowns”?
Well, that would help him regain his stock as a pitcher in a Royals bullpen that is in desperate need of help this season, based on how things have started out.
And perhaps in 2024 Royals fans could legitimately have those “Hernandez as the Royals closer” talks.
Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel/AP