There may not be a better example in 2013 for the roller coaster life that MLB relievers live than David Hernandez.
For the better part of two years, the right-hander was one of the best relievers in the league, reeling off 1.3 and 2.2 fWAR seasons in 2011 and 2012 respectively for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Going into this season, the former starter was practically destined to take over for J.J. Putz in the ninth inning after the closer’s final contracted season with the snakes in 2014 — or potentially earlier.
Well, so much for best-laid plans, eh?
Only months later, Hernandez not only finds himself without a late-inning role for Arizona — he’s out of a big-league job altogether:
#Dbacks optioned RHP David Hernandez to Reno following today’s game. Replacement announced tomorrow.
— Steve Gilbert (@SteveGilbertMLB) August 11, 2013
The breaking point was his latest implosion on Saturday, as the 28-year-old put what had been a tightly-contested game against the New York Mets out of reach with a inning of deuces: two hits, two walks, two runs. It extended a 2-1 Mets lead to 4-1, and though this was by far the first time he’d hurt the team, this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
But just what went wrong with Hernandez to give up these horrific numbers?
As usual, the issue is multi-faceted, but by far the most glaring element about his 2013 that sticks out is the long ball. No, he didn’t give up a home run yesterday, but he did give up at least one on 10 different occasions, giving him a 1.86 HR/9 that hasn’t been seen since he was a failed starter for the Baltimore Orioles.
Combined with that always unwanted combo of lowered strikeouts (9.31 K/9, a three-year low), and a bump in walks (3.72 BB/9 vs. 2.90 in 2012), and you have the recipe for Hernandez’s nightmare.
Somewhat surprisingly, much of the issue actually stems from his fastball, which rates as 1.82 runs below average per 100 pitches according to PITCHf/x after being a plus-value pitch over the last two years. It’s not exactly a velocity problem either, as it has held steady at a 94.7 mph average, the same as it was last season.
However, it is worth noting that opposing batters have been swinging at his outside offerings much less (29.5 percent to 35.6 in 2012) and his pitches inside the strike zone much more (66 percent vs. 62.2 in 2012), suggesting that they may be keying in on his mistakes over the plate as a result of a less effective fastball — and often going yard when those mistakes happen.
There is a silver lining, though. For the most part, Hernandez’s batted ball profile has held steady this season compared to last year, and the velocity is still there, so it’s possible that whatever is ailing him may only require a simple fix.
Still, unless he wants to start back at the bottom of the Diamondbacks’ pecking order in the pen, it’s a fix he’ll have to find quickly in the minors.