Yes, well obviously Roberto Hernandez is not Fausto Carmona. The name Fausto Carmona belongs to someone else, and though the history of Cleveland Indians starting pitcher “Fausto Carmona” belongs to Roberto Hernandez, the two pitchers (the one pitcher) are not the same.
What I’m saying is: Roberto Hernandez is striking out batters.
He has a 22.5% K-rate right now. His previous career high was 17.1%, but that was mostly as a rookie reliever. As a starter, his highest K-rate was 15.6%. In fact, if we dig even deeper, we find his 22.5% K-rate is the highest strikeout rate he’s ever posted over a four game period:
His recent success — underscored and even underappreciated in his 3.75 FIP and 3.60 SIERA — appears to be the product of deliberate changes. That suggests he could maintain a new level of success.
Earlier this month, Michael Barr observed Hernandez had changed his pitch selection distribution, leading to new success against lefties. Barr astutely points out how Hernandez has struggled to strikeout lefties. He has a career 17% K-rate against righties, but only 11.% K-rate against lefties.
So far in 2013, Hernandez has a 21% K-rate against lefties and a 26% K-rate against righties. And it does not appear to be (solely) a trick of Jose Molina called-strike magic or the sort. His swinging strikes per pitch have also skyrocketed:
Could this be a four-game fluke? No. Because it has already lasted eight games. In 4 Spring Training starts, Hernandez faced 111 batters and struck out 25. That 22.5% K-rate perfectly mirrors his present 22.5% K-rate. Hernandez has changed something, and the result has been more Ks. Whether or not the hitters adapt and bring his K-rate back down is a different discussion, but it appears that the uptick in Ks — and thereby production — is no accident.
So what has Hernandez changed?
I am not a big fan of PITCHf/x pitch classifications, specifically the ones the MLB spurts out with the raw data. I think it can be more instructive to look at a visualization of the data and look for the pitches and changes to the pitches there. Look, for instance, at the pitches outlayed below. Click the box next to 2011 and see if you can spot differences in the pitch movement and/or velocity (with velocity denoted by the icon color):
What did you notice? I noticed a slower, more sweeping slider. Sure enough, it appears the increased movement and increased effectiveness may be coming from a slower slider. And though the slider has less velocity, the speed is actually more in line with his previous slider velocity:
His slider is now leaving his hand around 83 mph as opposed to the 86 mph slider he was throwing — with mixed success — in preceding years. Meanwhile, his changeup has maintained a 5 mph difference from his main pitch, his 91 mph sinker. But he’s throwing that changeup like mad.
He has thrown 287 pitches to left-handed hitters in 2013, and 104 of those twirls were changeups. That’s a 36% changeup rate, up from his career 23% changeup rate to lefties. In 133 pitches to right handers in 2013, he has slung 33 changeups. That’s a 25% rate against his career 7% rate.
Here, look at it:
Starting in 2011, he started using the changeup more, but now both hands are getting the Change Treatment:
FanGraphs alumnus Tommy Rancel and BP’s Jason Collette dissected Hernandez’s changeup uptick on The Process Report and suggested sequencing benefits I too suspect:
To date Hernandez has held opponents to a .264 wOBA with his changeup and a .178 wOBA with his breaking ball. It’s not too surprising given the quality of the pitches and the improved usage and sequencing at hand. While the early returns have not been golden, the silver linings are now more visible than before.
One of the element Collette keys on in that article is the pitch placement, specifically how Hernandez has been dropping the changeup low in the zone with success. We can expand that thought using this visualization:
One of the curious location choices I noticed was how he is placing his sinker up in the zone, away in the zone, inside the zone, out of the zone, everywhere. (Click on the SI to highlight his 2013 sinker usage, then check the box next to “R” or “All” to reveal all the sinkers he’s thrown in 2013.)
In the past, Hernandez kept the sinker in a very specific band in the lower-left portion of the zone, regardless of batter handedness. We can see this more clearly with the PITCHf/x heatmaps on his player page, here enGIF’d:
Why is he putting the sinker any and everywhere in 2013? I don’t know. It could be spotty command (though his 9% walk rate is in line with career norms); it could be a function of small samples; or it could be an effect of his revamped pitch sequencing.
Let us study, as an example, Hernandez’s strikeout of left-handed batter A.J. Pierzynski in the bottom of the 4th inning on April 9, 2013. This is the pitch sequence and result:
Sinker high and away. [Ball 1.]
Changeup middle-away. [Foul ball, 1-1.]
Sinker middle in. [Ball, 2-1.]
Changeup low, low, middle. [Whiff, 2-2.]
Sinker up and in. [Called strike, K-looking.]
The last two pitches in context:
Pierzynski is about 15 minutes late on that sinker — even though the pitch is not in that lower-left (or down-and-away) sweet spot that Hernandez formerly abused. Could it be a function of the pitch sequencing or placement? Does the changeup followed by the sinker look like changeup again?
Judging by Pierzynski’s reaction, he was looking for another changeup. One of the observations we can make from the pitch movement Tableau is that Hernandez’s sinker and changeup have almost equal horizontal movement, but are a good five inches apart vertically — and nearly 6 mph different in speed. The slider has similar speed to the changeup, but completely opposite movement.
By working off his changeup instead of his sinker, Hernandez may be more fully able to take advantage of his other to main pitches, his sinker and slider. The changeup has visual similarities to both of his other key pitches, but the transitive property does not apply, as the slider and sinker have few visual links — they are very different pitches.
Linear weights can play tricks on PITCHf/x data. Certain pitches may solely serve the purpose of setting up other pitches, so a strong linear weights readout on one pitch may be the product of it simply looking like a better pitch. Nonetheless, it is unsurprising to see both Hernandez’s changeup and slider earning strong linear weights results so far in 2013.
What makes Hernandez so interesting? Why study a fifth starter so much? Well, it starts with the Rays front office. They are smart. They make a lot of low-cost, high-reward gambles — all small market teams do — but they seem to have succeeded on those gambles more than most. They have presided over: Fernando Rodney morphing from a wild fireballer to the owner the reliever ERA record; Jeff Keppinger going from an undesirable shortstop to a $12M utilityman; and career years from Kyle Farnsworth, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour and Joel Peralta — as well as hitters Casey Kotchman, Carlos Pena, Eric Hinske and possibly now James Loney.
At some point, the Rays’ success with these low-cost players goes from good fortunes to tedious pattern. And given these recent changes in his approach, it appears Roberto Hernandez may be another link in that chain.
NOTE: Hernandez’s next scheduled start is Friday against the White Sox.
Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.