Through Two Months, Roberto Hernandez Doing A Good Job

During the off-season, the Phillies made a low-risk signing of Roberto Hernandez, formerly known as Fausto Carmona, to a one-year $4.5 million deal. The right-hander was coming off of an awful 2013 with the Tampa Bay Rays in which he finished with a 4.89 ERA in 151 innings. Even in his seven seasons with the Cleveland Indians between 2006-13 were mostly unproductive, as he finished with an aggregate 4.64 ERA. The signing was not outright unpopular, but it certainly didn’t move the needle any to get fans excited about the season and it appeared that the Phillies could have made comparatively lateral moves for less money.

In early March, we learned that the Phillies’ new analytics department, headed up by Scott Freedman, made the case for the Hernandez signing. While their reasoning is unknown, the most obvious deduction is that they figured Hernandez’s home run rate would regress towards the mean. Hernandez finished 2013 with 21 percent of his fly balls going for home runs, about nine percent above his career average and 11 percent above the league average.

They likely also noticed that Hernandez’s strikeout rate reached a career-high 17.6 percent in 2013 while posting the lowest walk rate (six percent) of his career. A pitcher’s strikeout and walk rates are the quickest way to get a handle on his talent and while Hernandez didn’t grade out to be a future Cy Young winner, he did appear to be better than his ERA indicated.

On Wednesday night, Hernandez earned a no-decision against the Colorado Rockies after allowing two runs over 5 2/3 innings of work, allowing six hits and five walks while striking out four. The outing lowered his ERA to 3.76 despite an ugly 42/27 K/BB ratio in 52 2/3 innings. If the season were to end right now, the ERA would be the second-best of his career, just ahead of 2010’s 3.77 and behind 2007’s 3.06.

Thus far, Hernandez’s strikeout rate remains at 17 percent, he has continued to induce a lot of ground balls (53 percent), and his HR/FB rate has regressed to 15 percent, closer to both his career average and the league average, as expected. However, Hernandez’s walk rate has jumped significantly, up to 11 percent. He hasn’t walked that many since 2009 (12 percent). Additionally, while the HR/FB regression is nice, it’s not enough. His HR/FB rate is the seventh-highest among 99 qualified starters in baseball.

Perhaps that’s the give-and-take with Hernandez, or ground ball pitchers in general. Among those at the top of the HR/FB rate list, many of them have ground ball rates above 50 percent: Brandon McCarthy (54.0%, 1st), Homer Bailey (54.2%, 3rd), Edinson Volquez (50.3%, 5th), Gerrit Cole (51.4%, 6th), Yovani Gallardo (53.7%, 8th), Francisco Liriano (53.2%, 9th), Jorge De La Rosa (55.8%, 11th).

Hernandez can, however, work on his control. His walk rate is the fourth-highest among 99 qualified starters, and it’s a potentially lethal combination with his home run proclivities. He has been fortunate thus far that four out of the six home runs he has allowed have come with the bases empty, and the other two have had only one runner on base. But if you play with fire enough, eventually you’ll get burned. Hernandez has stranded 81 percent of runners on base, 12 percent above his career average. Strand rate isn’t something pitchers have a whole lot of control over; it’s heavily a function of timing and team defense.

While we got the HR/FB regression we expected going into the 2014 season, Hernandez has benefited from some timely pitching with runners on base. Unless he is able to dramatically reduce his walk rate over the next four months, we should see his ERA crawl up and land somewhere between his 4.12 xFIP and 4.64 FIP. Still, for $4.5 million, the Phillies have gotten and should continue to get their money’s worth out of Hernandez.

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