Baseball

Move Over Singer, Kowar, and Lynch—Carlos Hernandez Leads Young Royal Arms

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As the names came off the board during the 2018 MLB Draft, Kansas City Royals fans were already dreaming of a future big-league rotation headlined by Brady Singer (18th overall), Jackson Kowar (33rd overall), and Daniel Lynch (34th overall)—a trio of college aces drafted with visions of moving quickly and revitalizing the Kansas City rotation.

Along with Kris Bubic (40th overall in 2018), that group has indeed moved quickly, as the pandemic and canceled 2020 season allowed Singer and Bubic to log considerable time in the MLB rotation last year, as well as give Kowar and Lynch a springboard at the alternate site to debut this season.

However, that’s not why we’re here. Despite Singer, Lynch, and Bubic all being in the Royals rotation currently, another young arm has emerged in 2021, and he’s shined brighter than the rest of the pack this year. He wasn’t a member of the 2018 draft class or any draft class.

Regardless, the leader of the Royals youth movement is not Brady Singer right now. No, the current leader is a 24-year-old flame-throwing right-hander, Carlos Hernandez. Are you still fuzzy on the name? We’ll get you caught up on who he is, what his story is, and why he may be the real deal.

Where He Came From

Like many overlooked players, Hernandez came off the beaten path. Okay, not entirely, as he hails from talent-rich Venezuela. However, when top prospects sign at 16 years old, a 19-year-old will hardly even get a second glance, and that was how old Hernandez was when he signed with the Royals in 2016. His signing bonus reflected that: he signed for a paltry $15,000.

Since then, the ride was a little bumpy for the right-hander. He bypassed both the Dominican Summer League and Arizona League to pitch against recently-drafted players in Burlington in 2017 when here posted a 5.49 ERA in 62.1 innings, striking out 62 and walking only 27.

In 2018, he was bumped to Low-A Lexington and notched a 3.29 ERA and 82 strikeouts against just 23 walks in 79.1 innings over 15 starts. A fractured rib in spring training in 2019 stunted his progress, and he topped out again in Lexington while throwing just 57.2 innings over three levels.

However, per his MLB Pipeline report, “his velocity was better than ever in 2019, as he comfortably sat in the mid-to-upper-90s before bumping triple digits in the fall.” That led to his inclusion in the Royals 60-man player pool for 2020, which allowed him to work out alongside other top prospects at the alternate site, including Kowar, Bubic, and 2018 second-rounder Jonathan Bowlan, while pitching against the likes of Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto, and MJ Melendez.

The alternate site also put Hernandez one step from the majors, and he got the call, making five appearances in 2020, logging a 4.91 ERA over 14.2 innings, skipping the three upper level of the minors in the process.

The Next Step

Entering 2021, Hernandez wasn’t exactly under the radar, as he ended 2020 as the Royals #9 prospect, per MLB Pipeline. Still, it may have been a surprise when Hernandez pitched his way onto the Opening Day roster and even earned his first big-league win on Opening Day, allowing two runs in 3.0 innings, but showing a glimpse of his potential with five strikeouts in relief.

After two miserable outings in which he allowed a combined three walks and four hits while only recording one out, Hernandez was back to the alternate site, and eventually Omaha when the Minor League season opened in May. His Opening Day win looked like little more than a footnote at that point.

However, Hernandez has been a different pitcher since he returned to Kansas City for good on June 12. He started off rocky by allowing runs in three of his first four outings, but then threw a four-appearance stretch where he struck out 11 and allowed only one run over 7.2 innings.

After the All-Star break, Hernandez moved into the rotation, which was kicked off by two uninspiring (and short) starts against Baltimore and Detroit. The switch flipped though in back-to-back starts against the AL Central leaders, the Chicago White Sox. Hernandez earned wins in both starts (combined tally: 11.0 innings, six hits, one run, ten strikeouts), then followed it up by pitching into the seventh against both the Yankees and Astros.

Overall, in his last ten outings, including six starts, Hernandez has a 3.32 ERA in 38.0 innings, with 33 strikeouts against just 13 walks. Opponents are also hitting just .211 against him in that time, though a .245 BABIP might suggest some luck. Regardless, the results are extremely encouraging.

Why Hernandez Has Turned the Corner

When you look at Hernandez’s emergence, one number that quickly jumps out is his walk rate. Again, he’s walked 13 batters in his last 38.0 innings, a respectable 3.07 BB/9 that is in line with his career minor league rate of 3.2 BB/9. However, he started the season with 12 walks in 14.0 innings. Obviously, he honed in his command.

Oddly enough, his percentage of pitches for strikes has been the same over both spans: 61%. He also threw 61% strikes in 2020 (when he walked six batters in 14.2 innings), so the sequencing has changed somehow. Oddly enough, his groundball rate is virtually the same (0.73 grounders per fly ball, compared to 0.72 GB/FB), his line drive rate has actually gone up (from 24 to 27%), and his strikeout rate has gone down (12.04 K/9 to 7.82 K/9).

Now, let’s go to BABIP, a solid measure of how lucky or unlucky pitchers are. In his first eight outings, Hernandez had a BABIP of .415 (.298 opponent’s average), while his BABIP over his last ten outings is .245 (.211 opponent’s average). The question of where he should be is probably somewhere in between.

Looking at his Statcast numbers, the numbers are certainly interesting. His arsenal is as well, as his average fastball velocity (97.4 MPH) ranks 24th in MLB (his sinker is logged separately and averages 97.6 MPH). Meanwhile, he dials his off-speed back, with his average velocity on curveballs (82.1 MPH) ranking 61st, while his slider and changeup both are outside the top 150 in velocity.

All of his pitches have been effective, with his five separately noted pitches having expected batting averages between .181 (changeup) and .262 (sinker). All told, his expected batting average against (.248) isn’t much different than the actual number (.237).

Perhaps not surprisingly, as a hard-throwing pitcher, he does allow hard contact, with his average exit velocity (22nd percentile and hard-hit percentage (26th percentile) both ranking poorly. Oddly enough, his overall barrel rate (any batted ball with expected batting average >.500 and expected slugging >1.500) is in the 70th percentile.

Hernandez’s start last night against Houston may be the most emblematic of that. Hernandez allowed nine hard-hit balls, but only four barrels. Additionally, while those nine batted balls did produce two homers (both solo shots), the rest were either singles or outs, allowing him to limit the damage to four runs in 6.0+ innings, which granted, isn’t exceptional, but is certainly acceptable against a hard-hitting Astros squad.

Going back to the season as a whole, Hernandez swing-and-miss numbers are certainly eyebrow-raising. His overall whiff rate is nothing special (57th percentile), his chase rate (percentage of pitches outside the zone swung at) is in the 17th percentile. What this says is that Hernandez doesn’t gain a ton of swings and misses as a whole and struggles at inducing chases, but he gets a fair amount of whiffs within the strike zone.

Perhaps as he matures (he’s still just 24), he’ll induce more chases, but the approach he has appears to be working so far. His expected batting average (58th percentile) and slugging (59th percentile) are both above average, and as he shores up his walk rate (currently in the 20th percentile), those numbers (along with his 32nd percentile expected on-base percentage) will likely improve.

Comparing Hernandez to the other MLB pitchers (23 in total) making up the 96-100th percentile of hardest throwers, Hernandez ranks near the bottom of the group in most categories, which shows that he may just simply need more time to learn how to harness his weapons and tap into his true potential.

Is This For Real?

The profile of a pitcher who throws hard, but doesn’t induce a lot of swings and misses and gets hit around fairly hard isn’t encouraging, but again, the Statcast numbers show that Hernandez has an expected ERA of 4.19 this season, while his actual number is 4.33.

Again, these are numbers that could come down as he continues to find his command at the major league level. I should say that this refers not just to throwing more strikes, but also where in the strike zone his pitches are located. His heat maps are encouraging in some sense.

He tends to work up in the zone with his fastball, which at his velocity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, while his slider very consistently winds up down and off the plate to right-handed hitters—right where it’s supposed to be. His 39.4% whiff rate on the pitch is in the upper third of MLB pitchers.

He’s also using his four-seamer substantially more often and more effectively. In 2020, 126 of the 131 fastballs Hernandez threw were classified as sinkers, and opponents teed off, slugging .586 (and an expected slugging of .664). This year, he’s thrown four-seamers 37.8% of the time, with just 16.1% sinkers, and the results have been considerably better, with expected slugging on both pitches being a much more palatable .384 (with actual numbers being .433 on 4-seamers and .500 on sinkers).

Hernandez’s curveball has also been used effectively at times, with a whiff rate of 32.7%, which is in the middle of the pack league-wide. The heat map suggests that he leaves quite a few in the middle of the plate, though oddly enough, his .300 opponent’s slugging on the pitch is his lowest of his five deliveries. However, his expected batting average on curves is .217, a far cry from 2020, when it was .354 (and the actual average was .571).

Meanwhile, the most interesting pitch of his might be his changeup. He’s used it the least (just 9.1% of the time) and has left a few up in the zone, but his expected average is just .181, with average exit velocity being just 79.8%, far and away the least of any pitch of his.

Additionally, aside from his curveball, his four other pitches have all been thrown at least one MPH harder on average than 2020, showing some development in that category as well.

As time goes by, ditching his sinker entirely in favor of his more effective four-seam fastball may be the best play, as well as throwing his changeup more often and utilizing his curveball further down in the strike zone. Otherwise, the numbers suggest that Hernandez is getting better and that he has four pitches that can be legitimate weapons.

What About the Other Young Pitchers?

Of course, at the beginning, we touched on how the focus for many Royals fans is on Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and to a lesser extent, Kris Bubic.

The emergence of Hernandez doesn’t necessarily take away from their expected roles going forward, but Singer has had battled injuries and a sophomore slump, Bubic has struggled mightily keep the ball in the ballpark this season, and Kowar and Lynch had extremely rocky transitions to the majors (though Lynch has pitched better since returning).

With that quartet experiencing growing pains as they settle in to the majors, it’s time to look at Carlos Hernandez as a burgeoning force in the Royals rotation, both now and in the future.

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Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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