KC Royals: Why this starter is becoming trustworthy

(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

At the beginning of this season, Carlos Hernandez was a struggling reliever who the KC Royals tended to call upon in low-leverage situations. Now, with just over 50 games left in the season, Hernandez is making a name for himself as a trustworthy starter.

Hernandez was signed by the Royals as an international free agent in July 2016 for $15,000. He didn’t exactly dazzle in rookie ball in 2019, where he posted a combined 5.31 ERA in 57.2 innings with three different teams.

Despite this, Hernandez made it to the Royals’ 60-man Player Pool last season and was then a late-season callup. In his first start against the Pirates, Hernandez gave up three home runs in three innings but had two strikeouts. He ended his brief 2020 campaign with a 4.91 ERA, 13 strikeouts, and a 1.70 WHIP in 14.2 innings. Still, the Royals seemed to know what Hernandez had in him when they brought him to Kansas City again this year.

Carlos Hernandez seems to have found his rhythm with the KC Royals in 2021.

After struggling early this season—Hernandez allowed seven runs in 7.2 innings from April through May and returned to the minors briefly—he seems to have found his rhythm since being recalled from Omaha in June. On the season, he’s 3-1 with 48 strikeouts in 39.1 innings and has lowered his ERA, 8.22 at the end of May, to 4.58. And Hernandez is 2-1 with 18 strikeouts, a 1.13 WHIP, and .183 OBA since joining the rotation last month. His 4.08 ERA in that time is skewed by five runs he gave up in one outing; he gave up only three combined in the other three starts.

No greater evidence of his evolution into a good starter are his fantastic back-to-back outings against the White Sox in his last two starts, both of which he won. Hernandez allowed a combined six hits, 10 strikeouts, and three walks, and only gave up one run.

But what brought about this sudden transformation from struggling bullpen arm to trustworthy starter?

Carlos Hernandez’s arsenal makes him a strikeout machine for the KC Royals.

The pitch that sticks out when watching Hernandez is his four-seam fastball, which averages about 98 mph according to BaseballSavant. This is impressive considering Hernandez tosses his heater 39.6% of the time—a jump from the 2% and 94.4 mph he threw it last season. His sinker also reaches almost 98 mph and accounts for 14% of his pitches.

However, Hernandez is no one-trick pony—he has a deadly curveball and slider in his arsenal. After seeing a 98-mph fastball flash right by them, batters are certain to be crossed up seeing those two lower-80s pitches, for Hernandez has whiff rates of 38.2% on his curveball and 46% on his slider.

Developing his fastball to go along with his other pitches, Hernandez’s K/9 rate has increased from 7.98 in 2020 to 10.98 this year. He also decreased his HR/9 from 2.45 to 0.92.

In a way, Hernandez’s numbers compare favorably to former Royal Kelvin Herrera’s. When Herrera was at his peak, every KC Royals fan knew about his deadly fastball that blazed around 99 mph when he came out of the bullpen. The one key difference is that while Herrera relied mainly on his fastball, tossing it around 60% of the time in 2014 and 2015, Hernandez spreads out his pitches more.

And as long as Hernandez continues to develop his ability to rely on everything in his pitch arsenal, he is a good candidate to become a lethal starter in the rotation for years to come with Kansas City.

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In developing and expanding his pitch arsenal, Carlos Hernandez has found his rhythm in the KC Royals’ rotation, maybe for a long time.