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 Ronaldo Hernández.
The Question: Can Ronaldo Hernández work more walks?
We are firmly entrenched in prospects season in baseball, which has served as a nice respite from all of the lockout nonsense that is really engulfing the sport at the moment. One of the themes nationally about this current crop of prospects is the re-emergence of catchers, most notably at the very top of lists where Adley Rutschman of the Orioles is taking most evaluators’ top spot. The Red Sox, for their part, don’t have the kind of elite catching prospects most are talking about, but they do have a pair of solid young catchers who could become more prominent in the organization’s long-term picture as the position becomes more in flux with Christian Vázquez entering the last year of his contract.
Connor Wong will get his day a bit later in the series, but for today we’re going to be focusing on Ronaldo Hernández, who was originally with Chaim Blooms old team as part of the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Hernández was signed out of Colombia by the Rays and has been playing professionally since 2015, slowly making his way up the ladder. He had a brief stay on top 100 lists prior to the 2019 season, and then last winter was acquired by the Red Sox, along with infielder Nick Sogard, from Tampa Bay for two pitchers on waivers in Chris Mazza and Jeffery Springs.
Generally speaking, most of the focus around Hernández’s long-term future has been around his defense, which is certainly fair to bring up. Right now, the best-case scenario for Hernández is that he can be a bat-first catcher, as the defense is never going to be close to elite. That said, he does have a fantastic arm, which right now helps a little to make up for his relative lack of athleticism behind the plate as well as subpar framing skills. Something that could help boost him fairly significantly would be the advent of an automated strike zone (more colloquially known as robo umps), which would eliminate the need for framing skills. He’d still need to work on some stuff behind the plate, but the arm would be more of a factor in catching defense and he’d at least have a much better chance at sticking at the position on a regular basis long-term.
It’s hard to know exactly when that implementation will come, though, so for the time being we have to judge catching prospects based on the current rules. For Hernández, that means he may need to play another role than full-time catcher because it’s just too important a position to sacrifice that much defense. That may mean he could try to work another position such as third base or corner outfield into his repertoire, though I’m not sure that move would work out either, or that he’d be more of a bat coming off the bench. And in that case, while the bat looks good for a catcher, he’d need to bring more to his presence at the plate.
Now, there is plenty to like about what Hernández already offers with the bat. Last season he spent most of the year in Double-A, and over the course of 357 plate appearances the catcher hit .280/.319/.506. That’s a considerable amount of power, hitting 16 homers and finishing with a .226 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG). Now, the raw power hasn’t been consistently showing up in-game over his career, but it does grade out as plus and we saw that first-hand this past season. On top of that, he makes quite a bit of contact, striking out just under 20 percent of the time in Double-A last season and never eclipsing the 20 percent mark in his career save for his 30 appearances in Triple-A last year in which he struck out 23 percent of the time.
Now, that amount of contact is great, but we shouldn’t fool that for a good approach, or even a strong hit tool in general. He can certainly put the bat on the ball at a high rate, which is good, but his approach needs some major work. You can see from his Double-A line above that the OBP is just not much higher than the batting average, which obviously indicates a lack of walks. It’s actually worse than it seems, though, because Hernández was hit a whopping 11 times last season, which isn’t likely to be a trend that continues.
What’s particularly worrisome is that he only walked 11 times total for a rate of just a shade over three percent. Now, that’s a little bit of an outlier for his career, but A, not by that much, and B, it’s expected that more advanced pitchers will better be able to take advantage of his shortcomings. Hernández still made enough decent contact to make up for the lack of walks, but that’ll get harder as he moves up the ladder and eventually into the majors.
Eventually, he’ll need to do better at recognizing bad pitches out of the pitcher’s hand, and particularly recognizing pitches with spin heading for a spot out of the strike zone. And in addition to the recognition, he must show some restraint in laying off those offerings. Without that, it’s hard to see his power playing up to its full potential or anything close to it, and without that it’s hard to see Hernández as anything more than an up-and-down emergency catcher.
That being said, as we alluded to up top it’s still just too hard to project even what his role will be long-term because of that robo ump question. Without it, he’ll likely need to raise the floor of his offense because right now it’s not good enough for a corner bat or pinch hitter. With it, he’ll need to raise the floor to be an average regular. (The expected offense from the position will almost certainly rise as soon as an automated strike zone is implemented.) That floor raising will not happen without more walks entering into the picture. Keith Law put it best: There are still several ways [Hernández] can end up a valuable big leaguer, but the main one is taking more than a pitch a week.