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Nobody is talking about Carlos Hernandez, but we should be

He’s been very good!

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Kansas City Royals
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Carlos Hernandez (43) on the mound during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Kauffman Stadium.
William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be honest: it’s easy to fly under the radar on a team like the 2023 Kansas City Royals. They are barrelling towards 100 losses, mired in an everlasting rebuild. Of course not a lot of people are going to pay attention. Even Royals fans aren’t paying much attention—attendance remains extremely low, at just a tick over 16,000 fans per home game.

Carlos Hernandez is doing just that, flying under the radar as the third bullpen option for a bad team. Part of this is his own doing, as Hernandez just wasn’t any good from 2020 through 2022, and once that reputation settles it can be hard to overcome it in the eyes of your average baseball fan, who is not likely to peruse Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference on the regular.

Your humble content creators here at Royal Review have not helped in this regard. I am fairly certain there have been zero articles written specifically about Hernandez since the season has started. This is a shame, and I am here to rectify it, because Hernandez has been nasty this year. Here, you can see Hernandez slinging a 101 MPH fastball past Riley Greene, the up-and-coming star for the Detroit Tigers:

And here you can see Hernandez simply bullying Giancarlo Stanton with a wicked slider on a 3-2 count. Stanton was fooled.

Hernandez’s results speak for themselves. Through the All-Star break, Hernandez has struck out 28.8% of batters and walked 6.8% of batters—both of which are career best figures. While Hernandez’s ERA is sitting at a good-but-not-great figure of 3.83, his xERA and FIP are at a very impressive 3.13 and 2.67, respectively. In fact, that 2.67 figure is a top ten FIP in baseball among all pitchers with a minimum of 40 innings pitched.

So, how has Hernandez done this? There are three main reasons why this is the case:

  • Fastball velocity is up to 99.2 MPH, over 2 MPH more than his previous career average
  • Slider velocity is up to 88.9 MPH, about 3 MPH more than his previous career average
  • Curveball usage is way down, fastball and slider usage are up

Obviously, any time a pitcher goes from a fastball that averages 97 MPH to a fastball that average 99 MPH, they’re going to see more success. While that velocity isn’t as rare today as it was even ten years ago, it still places Hernandez in the 98th percentile of average fastball velocity, and making a mistake pitch at 100 MPH will result in better outcomes than making a mistake pitch at 96 MPH.

But it is Hernandez’s pitch mix that has also shifted in a sort of “oh, this is obviously what he should have been doing all along” kind of way. For his career, his two best offerings have been the fastball and slider, whose career run value above average per 100 pitches stand at 0.48 and 0.19, respectively. His worst offering has been his curveball, at -0.88 runs above average (aka, 0.88 runs below average) per 100 pitches.

So what did the new Royals pitching coaches have Hernandez do? They had him throw...more fastballs and sliders and fewer curveballs. Hernandez still throws the curveball occasionally as a slower, low-to-mid-80s velocity pitch to keep batters on their toes. But it’s not as good as the slider, so that’s what he throws.

Carlos Hernandez pitch mix for the Kansas City Royals

This has resulted in a bunch of improvements under the hood that have resulted in his sterling strikeout rates and FIP. For the first time in his career, Hernandez is throwing pitches in the strike zone more than half the time (51.7%) and, for the first time in his career, batters are making contact in the strike zone less than 80% of the time (78.9%). For the first time in his career, Hernandez is inducing swings outside the strike zone at a rate north of 30% (30.4%) but batters are making contact out of the zone less often than they ever have (46.8%). He has a whiff rate of nearly 30%. All are career bests.

Why is this a big deal? Well, it’s a big deal in part because, like every team, the Royals need good relievers and now Hernandez is one. But it’s more than that. For years, Hernandez has always been frustrating because the tools were there but the results weren’t. How was he locked at strikeout rates under 20% when his stuff was so electric? In other words, Hernandez was just another example of poor pitching development and coaching. Royals fans feared he would be sent packing, only for him to turn into an elite bullpen arm once another team fixed him.

Well...a team did fix him. The Royals, specifically. With many of the same front office and coaching figures involved from previous seasons, there is plenty of realistic and warranted concern about player development. There will need to be more Carlos Hernandezes for the Royals to turn that reputation around, because even if their pitching development process is different, there’s a big difference between “not being in the pitching dark ages anymore” and “at the cutting edge of player development,” which is where the Royals need to be.

In the meantime, we can simply enjoy Hernandez being a good pitcher. That’s not always something we’ve been able to do this season, so savor it when he’s on the mound.