Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Darwinzon Hernandez.
2019 in one sentence
Darwinzon Hernandez showed both ends of the spectrum we’ve been reading about his entire career as he emerged as an exciting, but flawed, potential late-inning option in his rookie year.
Look, if you watched Darwinzon Hernandez even just a few times you know basically where the positives and negatives lie. Perhaps no player more obviously showed the strengths and weaknesses of his game in 2019 than Hernandez. As far as the positives go, we have to start with the stuff. Oh, that stuff. The lefty is straight-up filthy when he has even a semblance of command, and it showed with his strikeout numbers. Pitching almost entirely in short relief outings — he made just one start and threw more than an inning in just six of his 29 appearances — the strikeout stuff played up like crazy.
In his 30 1⁄3 innings he struck out 57 batters at a rate of 16.9 per nine innings and set down just about 39 percent of his total opponents. There were 457 pitchers who threw at least 30 innings in 2019. Seven of them finished with a higher K% and zero of them struck out more batters per nine innings. The former is a much better measurement, but either way it just goes to show that this 22-year-old’s (he’ll turn 23 in December) stuff is more than major-league ready.
The sights for Hernandez’ future — as early as 2020 if all goes well — are much higher than that of a specialist, but he showed that he has a floor of that if development proves as it so often does to not be linear. The southpaw was absolutely dominant against other lefties in 2019. Now, he wasn’t at all a LOOGY out of the bullpen, with just 37 percent of his opponents hitting from the left side, but he thrived when he did get to face same-handed opponents. Lefties hit just .089(!)/.255/.133 against Hernandez and he struck out an absurd 56.4 percent of them. Among the 503 pitchers who recorded at least 30 outs against lefties, only eight allowed a lower wOBA and only one (Will Smith of the Giants) struck them out a higher rate.
These are all great in isolation, but like I said the goal for Hernandez is higher than that. There is potential for him to be a legitimate late-inning arm for a playoff team and he just needs to round off some of the rough edges to get there. For one stretch in the summer, we saw what that would look like. It was actually the beginning of his final stint in the majors. Hernandez was called up to Boston for a third and final time on July 16, and for about three weeks he looked like the truth. It was only ten appearances, to be fair, but we were looking for anything to grab onto in terms of positivity on this pitching staff. Over those ten outings the southpaw did not allow a single run while striking out eighteen batters and walking seven in a total of nine innings. Small sample, yes, but it was the first extended look we got from him in relief and it was mouthwatering.
Most of his success at this point in his career is admittedly because he’s just so damn hard to make contact off of. That said, even when opponents do hit Hernandez, it is often not with much authority. The lefty allowed just one homer in his time in the majors, which is partially due to small sample size noise but also thanks to his own stuff. According to the Statcast data at Baseball Savant, Hernandez had a solid ground ball rate and hardly even allowed fly balls, instead giving up line drives. That’ll lead to plenty of singles, and he did allow a .433 batting average on balls in play, but not a whole lot of real damage. In fact, Baseball Savant shows player comps for batted ball profiles and Brandon Workman comes in at number one for Hernandez. Workman was perhaps the toughest pitcher in baseball to square up in 2019. Also included on the list are Josh James, Matt Barnes, Aroldis Chapman and Amir Garrett.
After reading all that I just wrote, surely you can see why so many fans and so many within in the organization are excited about Hernandez moving forward. It wasn’t all that pretty, though. I alluded to the biggest issue above being his command, and more accurately it would simply be the control. Hernandez just couldn’t throw strikes, and more importantly he couldn’t get batters to swing at pitches out of the zone. Before we get there, the raw numbers are about as eye-popping as the strikeout numbers. Boston’s young lefty walked a total of 26 batters for a rate of 7.7 per nine innings and a total of nearly 18 percent of his opponents. Going back to that group of 457 pitchers who tossed at least 30 innings, Hernandez ranked second in walks per nine innings and fourth in walk percentage. That’s not where you want to be.
Back to the reasoning here, though, because that’s where it’s important. As I said, Hernandez doesn’t get batters to chase on pitches out of the zone. According to Baseball Prospectus, among the 431 pitchers who threw at least 600 pitches only one (Jesse Biddle) induced swings at a lower rate on pitches out of the zone. Now, we know this isn’t because he doesn’t get movement on the pitches. One look at his strikeout rate tells us that can’t really be the case.
Instead, it’s that A) he starts pitches out of the zone that never move back in. That’s a command issue. For example, a slider to a righty would ideally start on the inner half and break in on the ankle. See: Peak Chris Sale. Instead, they are starting low or already inside and have no chance of being challenged. As for B) he already has a reputation for throwing balls. This was the book on him in the minors, so major-league hitters aren’t going to swing early in counts until he gives them a reason too. Changing this mindset of his opponents is the biggest key for Hernandez moving forward.
The walks are really the big negative here, but you can also look at the counterparts to two of the positives listed above. Firstly, for as dominant as Hernandez was against lefties he struggled against righties. Opposite-handed hitters finished with a .319/.462/.472 line against Hernandez, striking out at a reasonable 28 percent rate while walking at an absurd 18.5 percent rate. If he is going to be the late-inning reliever he has the potential to be, he clearly needs to do better against hitters from the right side.
Additionally, there was the stretch after his initial run in the majors. It seemed the league adjusted to Hernandez after how dominant he was in those first ten appearances. Over his next 17 appearances and 16 innings the lefty pitched to a 6.75 ERA while allowing a .781 OPS. Part of that was likely fatigue, which may not seem reasonable given inning totals but does when you consider that he both pitched later into the year than usual and was also pitching more frequently on a day-to-day basis than before. More of it was the league adjusting to him, though. Baseball is a game of adjustments, as we all know. It’s now Hernandez’ turn.
The Big Question
Are we too quick to dismiss the possibility of Darwinzon Hernandez sticking as a starter?
No. Hernandez started this season as a starter in Portland’s rotation, but it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to end up in the reliever at some point in 2019. Still, the team kept insisting they truly believed he was a starter, so I wanted to believe just a little bit. That’s out the window now. We were right to dismiss the possibility.
It’s hard to envision a scenario where Hernandez isn’t on the Opening Day roster in the Red Sox bullpen. I don’t suspect he’ll be one of the top three relievers (I’d guess those spots will belong to Workman, Barnes and a new face in some order), but he’ll have every chance to move quickly up the ladder.