The Rays’ signing of Roberto Hernandez will draw parallels to last winter’s signing of Fernando Rodney. Like Rodney, Hernandez is a right-handed pitcher beyond the age of 30 with a sparse record of past success. Both enjoyed stretches of productivity, but neither sustained a steady level of accomplishment. The pair also hit the open market at low points in their career (Rodney coming off a subpar season and injury. Hernandez coming of a wasted year due to legal issues surrounding his identity). Yet, the budget conscious Rays decided to give both guaranteed, seven-figure contracts.
It would be foolish of anyone to expect Rodney-like results from Hernandez—or Rodney, for that matter. But the motivation behind both signings appears the same: stuff.
The Rays made several changes to Rodney last season—including his position on the mound as well as quieting his delivery. Those changes seemed to do him well; however, those adjustments would not have meant much without Rodney’s raw ability, something that cannot be taught by Jim Hickey or manufactured in the front office. Hernandez has unteachable raw stuff, too. He has a hard, sinking fastball that lives in the low-to-mid 90s and induces groundballs in bunches. Accompanying the heater is a low-80s slider and a changeup thrown in the mid-80s. Both offerings were once rated as plus pitches, and both have been used to miss bats at the major-league level.
Odds are Tampa Bay will make some adjustments to Hernandez’s mechanics. They can be a bit of a mess at times, leading to poor location. Generally, bad location leads to bad results. Hernandez has also had some issues handling those results. With that said, it would not be a surprise if the club attempted to some coaching on an emotional level as well.
Aside from mechanics and psychology, one way to attempt to aide Hernandez’s stuff reach its potential is sequencing. From James Shields to Joel Peralta, several Rays with lesser ability have maximized the impact of their pitches by simply using them wisely. Looking at Hernandez’s usage rates, a few tweaks may be in order. His sinker is a good pitch —especially in situations where a groundball is needed—but it is not necessarily an outpitch. Instead, his slider and changeup may become his new two-strike pitches of choice.
Since 2007, batters have swung and missed on 25 percent of swings against Hernandez’s slider and 30 percent of hacks againt his changeup, according to brooksbaseball.net. Pitchers with similar whiff rates over the last few seasons include Madison Bumgardner, Matt Cain, and Johnny Cueto (sliders), along with Jake Peavy, Cliff Lee, and John Danks (changeups). This is not to say Hernandez is as good as those pitchers, but to show that his secondary stuff is worthy of primary usage. Yet for some reason, Hernandez has thrown a variation of the fastball (four-seam and sinker) more than 60 percent of the time with two strikes.
In fact, this is the truth for all counts in which Hernadez is ahead of the batter. Of course, there are situations where he may be looking to put the ball in play, but in most cases, when there is two strikes, the best outcome is a third. Throwing more two-strike breaking balls and off-speed pitches will not necessarily turn Hernandez into a strikeout machine; however, throwing your best pitch(es) when you are close to an out is generally a sound process.
Hernandez will report to Port Charlotte as a starter, although his role is actually to be determined Should the Rays trade another starter in addition to James Shields and Wade Davis, he could provide veteran insurance until Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi or another prospect is deemed ready. If the Rays choose to keep the depth chart as is, he could serve as a multi-inning reliever similar to Davis last season. Regardless of the role, Hernandez enters the organization as a project. Expect changes to be made: mechanical, mental, and philosophical. At the same time, he comes already equipped with biggest piece of the puzzle—natural talent. Now all he has to do is figure out how the pieces fit.