We’ve talked about the potential mechanical and psychological changes the Rays could ask Roberto Hernandez to make this season. What we haven’t discussed is a possible change in arsenal.
Hernandez throws four pitches: Sinker, four-seamer, changeup, and slider. It’s an arsenal that, with little exception, is best used down in the zone. In most cases this is a good thing; you want to pitch down in the zone for obvious reasons. However, there are a few drawbacks to this strategy as it pertains to Hernandez’s arsenal, and it has to do with when he elevates the ball by choice.
The easiest way to explain these negatives is with a thought experiment that puts yourself in the batter’s shoes. Let’s say you’re a right-handed hitter first. You know Hernandez is going to pound you with sinkers down and in, and occasionally up and on the hands. Otherwise you’re going to see sliders going down and away, and maybe a changeup down and away as well. If the pitch is coming in at the belt or higher then you can think fastball: either a sinker running in or a four-seamer away.
Now let’s pretend you’re a lefty facing Hernandez. The sinker is going to be kept down and away in part because of its natural movement in that direction. Hernandez is going to keep the changeup down and away, too. Historically Hernandez has thrown the slider down and away or down and over the plate. He might shake things up with an insider sinker or a back-foot slider, but for the most part you’re going to be looking down and away and thinking about left field. The one exception again being the four-seamer, which could be up in the zone and on either side of the plate.
In both cases we’ve all but eliminated the upper-third of the zone based on Hernandez’s arsenal. When we do get a pitch coming in high we can assume it’s a fastball, either a sinker or a four-seamer, and react as such. It’s like the inverse of the old Keith Hernandez thought (batters are trained to assume inside pitches are fastballs, thus making a well-located changeup inside a great pitch to throw). This puts the pitching Hernandez at a massive disadvantage when he does change eye levels. Unsurprisingly, his OPS-against over the past three seasons by vertical location suggests he must stay down to be effective:
On pitches up: .927
On pitches middle: .807
On pitches down: .637
There is a big caveat to apply here: These are end-locations, not intended locations. If Hernandez tries throwing a slider down and away but it backs up on him and gets blasted then it’s going down as a pitch in the middle of the zone. There’s no way to correct for this shy of charting all of his intended locations and the pitch results. Besides, the real telling sign is that Hernandez’s splits by location are more severe than the league-average. This is what we’d expect based on our thought processes above.
So how can Hernandez keep batters off his back when he climbs the ladder? One way would be adding a curveball to his arsenal. Since Hernandez can throw a mean slider you would think he could spin a curve (presumably a spike curve, since Alex Cobb said that was the en vogue pitch on the staff last spring). It’s a lot to ask a pitcher to master a pitch within what amounts to less than a two-month window. It’s even more to ask him to feel good enough about the pitch to use it in meaningful games. But perhaps it’s doable since the pitch’s quality need not be a breadwinner or even more than a show-me offering. All he needs is something to throw now and again to keep batters honest when he changes eye levels.
Of course if the Rays are asking Hernandez to change other things—his mechanics, his mindset, his philosophy, whatever—then they might feel that asking him to add one more thing to the list is asking for issues. Just keep Hernandez’s lack of a vertical aspect in mind as the spring (and summer) progress.
All stats courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info