Grading the 2023 KC Royals: Carlos Hernández remains an enigma

The fire-balling reliever ran out of gas after the trade deadline.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
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Welcome back to Kings of Kauffman's offseason series analyzing the 2023 performances of various KC Royals players. Today's subject is relief pitcher Carlos Hernández.

Consistency has never been Carlos Hernández's strong suit. Over parts of four seasons in the majors, whether it be as a starter or out a reliever, Hernández has been up and down. At times, he's flashed elite stuff, and at others, big league hitters have had no problem teeing off on him. But even for Hernández, 2023 was an exercise in extremes.

Carlos Hernández's 2023 was a tale of two seasons in 1 with an unhappy ending

If you tuned out on the Royals' season at the trade deadline, you likely believe Hernández's 2023 was a tale of two seasons in one with no happy conclusion. Two-thirds of the way through a miserable season, the hard-throwing righthanded reliever was one of the club's few bright spots. He had a few hiccups, similar to his previous stints as a starter, but his stuff played up out of the bullpen and he proved to be a formidable, and at times dominant, setup man.

With Hernández pitching well, the Royals could might have been able to move him at the trade deadline, but didn't. Kansas City's trade of Scott Barlow to the Padres, however, appeared to cement Hernández's promotion to Barlow's closer spot.

That's when the wheels came off.

Keeping in mind that Hernández was generally very good up to the trade deadline, his final stats paint a picture of how dreadful he was after it. For the season, he posted a 1-10 record with a 5.27 ERA, 77 strikeouts, 31 walks, a 1.329 WHIP, and four saves. The 5.27 ERA was an improvement from the 7.39 he put up in 2022, but a far cry from the 3.68 he posted in his promising 2021 season. His 9.9 K/9 was very respectable, but largely nullified by a 3.99 BB/9 and 1.29 HR/9 rate.

Those last two stats, in particular, proved to be Hernández's second-half Achilles heel. In 17 innings pitched after the trade deadline, he had an ERA over 11, gave up six homers, and walked 16 batters. He finished the season with a 25.7% strikeout rate, but an awful 10.3% walk rate.

Some Royals fans probably began to dread the sight of Hernández jogging out of the bullpen during the stretch run. He still had the kind of electric stuff to strike out the side, but more often than not, as his confidence appeared to wane, he looked like he was in over his head. No matter what the advanced stats gurus say, the ninth inning is different, and Hernández appeared overwhelmed by the challenge.

To make matters worse, Hernández's problems snowballed on him. Even after the Royals moved him out of the ninth and into lower leverage situations, he struggled to pull everything together. Like Brandon Maurer 2.0, he fired pitches all around the strike zone at a high velocity, giving free passes that made his mistakes in the zone all the more costly when opponents got hold of one.

He closed the season with three relatively solid performances in his last five appearances, but it was too little, too late to win back the goodwill he'd earned with the fanbase during the first half of the season. And even then, there were still plenty of warts. In the three positive appearances, he walked batters in two of them, and in his next-to-last game of the season, he gave up a three-run home run and blew a save against Detroit; that's the kind of performance that suggests it may be time for Hernández and the Royals to part ways.

What grade should Carlos Hernández earn for the 2023 season?

It might seem harsh, but I'm giving Hernández a D. One can argue he deserves more credit for his positive accomplishments in the first half of the season, but that just makes his finish all the more unacceptable. It's too early to write him off, but that point might be closer than anyone wants to admit. Flashes of greatness are nice, but they don't do the Royals any good. This is 2023, six years into a rebuild that has already lasted too long, and the Royals need consistent production if they're going to turn the corner.

Hernández doesn't have to be the second Wade Davis for Kansas City to be successful, but he has to cut out the meltdowns on the mound. Next season may be his last chance to prove he can be that kind of pitcher.

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