Underrated Reliever Quietly Pitching Himself Toward Trade Candidacy

Nobody can definitively say whether the Reds will be sellers at the trade deadline this year. At 33-38 and near the bottom of the National League Central, they certainly look the part of sellers. Their Pythagorean record is quite a bit better than that, but they’re well back of the Brewers and Cubs and drifting away from the Wild Card slots. They have several guys on the roster playing out the final years of their contracts, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they sold. If so, one of the players plenty of teams will be interested in David Hernandez.

You’d be forgiven for not grouping Hernandez with the game’s best relievers. His 4.50 ERA is below league average, and though he’s had a solid career, he’s never been one of the game’s premier late-inning arms.

However, glance past his surface numbers, and he starts to look a little better.

FIP by Relievers, min. 30 IP
Player Club FIP
Kirby Yates Padres 1.14
Brad Hand Indians 1.57
Ryan Pressly Astros 2.05
Matt Barnes Red Sox 2.24
David Hernandez Reds 2.48
Josh Hader Brewers 2.49

That’s a list of some of the most feared relievers in the game, and Hernandez’s name is right there with them. His elite FIP stems from his ability to keep the ball in the park. He’s allowed just two dingers in 32 innings, good for the 13th-best HR/9 ratio in baseball. That would be his best mark since 2012, but it isn’t far off from the 0.65 HR/9 figure he posted in 2017 or his 0.84 mark last season.

Hernandez is also generating plenty of strikeouts. His 11.8 K/9 ratio represents something of a breakout, or at least a resurgence. He was an elite strikeout pitcher back in 2012, when he punched out 98 hitters in 68 innings and posted a 2.50 ERA and a 2.08 FIP. He traded a few strikeouts for ground balls in the years following, as he struck out a still-solid 9.3/9 from 2013-18. In 2019, the strikeouts are back, and he’s again exceptional.

According to Statcast, Hernandez has yielded a .250 xwOBA and a .306 xSLG. Those figures place him in the 95th and 92nd percentiles in all of baseball, respectively. Either of those numbers would do just fine to illustrate how great Hernandez has been this season, but I like this one even better:

Z-Contact%, min. 30 IP
Player Club Z-Contact%
Josh Hader Brewers 58.4%
Kirby Yates Padres 69.2%
Pedro Baez Dodgers 74.0%
Joshua James Astros 74.3%
David Hernandez Reds 75.0%
Carlos Estevez Rockies 75.5%

Josh Hader is a goblin, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But take him off the top of this list, and we again find Hernandez matching up well with some of the most dominant relievers in the majors in a stat that does a pretty good job measuring how difficult you are to hit. It’s great for pitchers to be able to miss bats on pitches thrown outside the zone, but the location of those pitches inherently makes them tougher to get a piece of in the first place. If hitters miss one out of every four strikes you throw, your stuff must be pretty filthy.

In Hernandez’s case, the stuff starts with a cutter/slider hybrid he picked up just a few years ago, as he relayed to our David Laurila last week. According to Statcast, when he began throwing the pitch in 2017, he used it 24% of the time. He did so effectively, limiting opponents to a .317 wOBA and a .284 xwOBA. He used it a bit less last year, but it performed even better.

This year, the cutter/slider is his primary offering. He’s throwing it a third of the time and holding opponents to a .194/.256/.333 line. But those results — like his overall ERA — don’t quite do justice to how good the pitch has been. When batters are swinging at Hernandez’s hybrid, they are whiffing at a rate of 46%. That includes a 40% whiff rate when the pitch is in the strike zone, more than double the 19.4% in-zone whiff rate he managed with it last year. Take a look at how late and uncomfortable hitters are when swinging at the pitch:

Here’s Jake Bauers whiffing at the pitch in the center of the plate:

Here’s Matt Adams whiffing at the pitch over the inside corner:

And here’s Orlando Arcia whiffing at the pitch well off the plate:

The cutter/slider isn’t the only positive development in Hernandez’s repertoire. He’s also retooled his fastball approach from being sinker-heavy in 2018 (44.9% of all pitches thrown compared to 13% four-seamers) to using more four-seamers in 2019 (28.7% of pitches compared to 19.8% sinkers). The shift has paid off, with the four-seamer holding opponents to a .281 xwOBA and inducing a 35.1% whiff rate. This strikeout against Steven Duggar illustrates the four-seamer’s capabilities pretty well:

The elephant in the room is why has he had such mediocre results? Why does a pitcher who generates weak contact and posts four strikeouts for every walk own an ERA of 4.50? The answer, as you probably suspect, involves some bad luck. For his career, Hernandez has held opponents to a .286 BABIP. In 2019, that number is .346. That bad luck has often stacked up in short bursts as well.

Take for example an outing against the Pirates on May 27 in which Hernandez faced five batters and allowed four runs. Seems pretty bad! Well, it starts with a double by Cole Tucker on a well-placed sinker that smacked center fielder Nick Senzel right in the glove:

Then, after a hit batter, Bryan Reynolds tripled on a batted ball that had an xBA of .230:

Three pitches later, Starling Marte knocked a slider into the center field seats. It isn’t difficult to see how better outfield defense or a slightly different flight path from a few balls in play made a disaster out of an otherwise unremarkable inning. You can always play what-if with a bad outing, but the point here is that even in Hernandez’s worst performance of the season, he wasn’t giving up hard contact all over the place.

Will the Reds deal him? It’s tough to say. After adding so much talent over the winter, the front office might be uncomfortable taking a step back.

But the Reds should be able to justify trading Hernandez. He’s 34 years old, in the final year of his contract, and pitching as well as he ever has. Cincinnati has a surprisingly deep bullpen (the Reds lead the majors in relief WAR), so his absence won’t cripple the team.

Come July, Hernandez will likely be available. A contending team would probably be wise to get a jump on one of the best, and most underrated, arms available.

We hoped you liked reading Underrated Reliever Quietly Pitching Himself Toward Trade Candidacy by Tony Wolfe!

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Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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alanott
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alanott

David Hernandez was my boy back in Bowie.