Jonathan Hernandez has had a rough time of things as a 22 year old right handed starter in the Texas League so far in 2019. As I’ve written and reported on before, Hernandez has plenty of tools that would play at the MLB level, but poor fastball command and a predictable pitch sequence has been allowing hitters to jump on early heaters for loud contact. In addition, Hernandez had struggled to find the feel for his changeup that just last year was flashing above average with both tumble and fade and this year has been flat. Last night’s start was different in both ways so let’s discuss why that could be significant for Hernandez’s chances to stick as a starter and out-perform his current projection as a reliever.
Starting off with a quick primer on the stuff: Hernandez has a 94-94 T98 fastball with arm-side life, a plus 85-86 SL with plus sharp slurvy action, an 80-81 curveball that at times has flashed average with 11 to 4 break with above average spin, and an 84-85 changeup that has flashed above average at times, but this year has not until last night. He has a rotational and cross-fire delivery that makes it hard to repeat the release point despite his quality athleticism and body control and it leads to below average fastball command.
Last night, Hernandez was unpredictable early. He mixed in sliders early in the count, threw fastballs in pitcher’s counts that stayed near the top of the zone and broke in on righties hands, and kept hitters unsure of which pitch was coming next. As the game progressed he added another element to the game plan in the form of his changeup, which was flashing above average, both early and late in the counts to get whiffs. He did drop the curve out from last night’s start, but it doesn’t necessarily fit as a high usage pitch since it isn’t as sharp as the SL, yet has a very similar movement profile. Hernandez was also feeling it and his fastball command was more consistent. However, in the past he was getting even well-located fastballs jumped on because hitters were so sure it was coming in specific counts. As last night’s opponent Brian Howard could tell you, when you can throw any of your offerings in any count you can keep hitters off your fastball even if it is occasionally not located in the exact spot you intended.
The significance of this is that Hernandez did something completely different than he has in the past. He pitched like a lot of modern big leaguers who struggle with their command, yet thrive because their quality feel for three high quality offerings. Command will likely continue to come and go for Hernandez and being able to keep hitters from sitting dead red will be vital for a pitcher who will likely make mistakes middle/middle occasionally. The improved changeup sticking around and remaining consistent is another crucial aspect for Hernandez.
It’s obviously to early to project any significant changes for Hernandez moving forward, but a step in the right direction is something I haven’t witnessed in the past season, so last night’s start was encouraging. If he can keep the trend of being unpredictable going, his excellent raw stuff will allow him to dominate on the good days and survive on the days he might not have his command, and that’s really what being a middle of the rotation pitcher is all about.