Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Darwinzon Hernandez.
The Question: Can Darwinzon Hernandez work around the walks?
We’ve seen enough of Darwinzon Hernadez at this point to be tantalized by the stuff the left-handed reliever possesses. We’ve also seen enough to be frustrated by the lack of consistency as well as the sky high walk rates. When Hernadez is on, he’s very much on and is throwing with elite stuff, which we saw in a stretch from May 15 through July 11 of last season where, over 18 1⁄3 innings he struck out 23 posting a 1.47 ERA and a .164 batting average against. But on the other side of the coin, Hernandez followed that performance up by finishing off the season by walking more than seven batters per nine innings (along with three hit batters) and posting an earned run average of 5.40 over his final 10 innings of the year.
At this point, I think we’re beyond hoping for more consistency and fewer walks (although the walk rate is so astronomical there has to be some room for improvement) so for this One Big Question let’s search for an alternative. Can find he some way to compensate for the high walk rates and still be an effective, and potential late-inning, reliever for the Boston Red Sox?
One potential avenue for Hernandez to explore is mixing his pitches more. In 2021, he threw his fastball 73 percent of the time, and while he did technically throw other pitches, it’s hard not to be predictable when you’re throwing one pitch that often. So even with him throwing the heat with elite spin and good velocity, hitters just sit on it and more often than not end up on base. One way to get hitters away from just waiting on an outcome would be to mix in his slider and curveball more often. His slider was the pitch he threw second-most behind his fastball at 21 percent and had identical whiff and put-away rates to his fastball.
However, Hernandez can really ramp it up is by mixing his curveball into the arsenal more often. The southpaw only tossed his curveball five percent of the time in 2021, but in that small sample it was by far his most effective pitch. The curve produced godly whiff rate of 50%, and his best put away rate of pitches he threw at least one percent of the time, for a rate of at 27.3 percent. Those rates are likely not sustainable over a larger sample and thrown in a different sequence, but the building blocks for an effective offering appear to be in place.
When pitchers are struggling to find the zone they often turn to trusty number one just to get a ball over the plate, which makes sense as to why Hernandez threw the volume of fastballs he did, but when everyone knows a zig is coming, it’s time to zag. This is especially true when the zag you can turn to is as effective as that curveball was when he threw it in 2021.
There are a bunch of examples of high leverage relievers finding ways around high walk rates. For example, in 2021 Kenley Jansen was second in the majors in saves while posting an ERA of 2.22 and a rate of 4.7 walks per nine innings. One of the ways he was able to be successful was by mixing all three of his pitches. He threw his fastball at the lowest rate (58%) he ever has at any point in his career, upping the usages of his secondary offerings and keeping those free baserunners from scoring. Aroldis Chapman and Alex Reyes, meanwhile, were also both able to have success in high-leverage situations and did so while walking more than six batters per nine innings. One other advantage both of those possess is the ability to throw 103 miles an hour, there’s another possible avenue for Hernandez if he can increase his velocity a mere eight or so miles per hour. Piece of cake.
I think we’re getting past the point now where we’re hoping Hernandez just develops control or consistency and needs to now look in another direction to compensate for his high walk rate. He has the tools in his belt, and by mixing his pitches more and using his most effective offspeed pitches he can theoretically keep batters more off-balance and away from just sitting on his fastball, and hopefully in turn chase some more pitches off the plate. We’ve been waiting for Hernandez to settle in as a late-inning arm for a few years now. Here’s hoping this is the season it finally happens.
Thank you to FanGraphs and Baseball Savant for providing statistics used in this post.