Confident Hernandez Shows Orioles He's a Keeper
By Pete Kerzel
If the Orioles weren’t already convinced David Hernandez should be penciled into their starting rotation for the immediate future, the right-hander’s last two July starts in hostile territory made a strong case for his inclusion.
In 2008, David Hernandez went 10-4 with a 2.68 ERA and 166 strikeouts in 27 starts at Bowie.
|Projected O's 2010 Rotation
Now that we've hit the dog days of August, it's almost time to start thinking about 2010. The development of right-handers Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez has Orioles fans excited about the influx of young starting pitching.
So what will the Orioles rotation look like next season? Here's a look ahead at the five-man starting staff that could open the 2010 season.
RHP Jeremy Guthrie
Every staff needs an anchor, and that's Guthrie, who won't be distracted next spring training by the World Baseball Classic and will be able to exert his full attentions on readying himself for 2010. The Orioles like Guthrie's makeup and mentality, but he'll have to cut down on the number of homers he's allowed (xx through xx).
RHP Brad Bergesen
Bergesen should have made this year's rotation out of spring training but was farmed out for more seasoning. No worries, since he's admirably filled the stopper void while Guthrie has struggled with an up-and-down campaign. Bergesen's biggest strength may be his ability to pitch deep into games, which saves the bullpen.
RHP David Hernandez
Sure, the Orioles would like to see more strikeouts from a heady pitcher who missed bats with regularity in the minors, but they'll gladly accept quality starts, quickly worked so that fielders remain on their toes. Hernandez's poise has been impressive. How he weathers an inevitable rough stretch will bear watching.
RHP Chris Tillman
The Erik Bedard trade looks better and better for the Orioles, who can add a future front-of-rotation starter in Tillman to all-stars George Sherrill and Adam Jones. Tillman has two dynamite pitches, a fastball with movement, and a plus curve. The addition of a still-developing changeup makes his arsenal complete. If he doesn't make the club out of spring training, Tillman will be among the first farmhands summoned from Triple-A Norfolk.
RHP Jason Berken
Granted, his win-loss record isn't impressive, but his staying power has been. While the Orioles would probably prefer at least one left-hander in the rotation, they might not have that luxury. Right-hander Koji Uehara may be better suited for long relief and lefty Troy Patton, a forgotten piece of the haul the O's received for Miguel Tejada from the Astros, is still coming back from rotator cuff surgery and has had a roller coaster year, pitching well at Double-A Bowie but struggling with Norfolk and better hitters. Brian Matusz isn't yet major-league ready.
The 24-year-old got a no-decision at Yankee Stadium on July 20, allowing a run on three hits in six innings. Six days later, pitching against Boston in Fenway Park, Hernandez went seven innings, surrendering five hits and a run while picking up the victory. In four July starts, he was 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA and went at least six innings in every outing.
“Hernandez is special,” Orioles manager Dave Trembley said after the win over Boston. “I think for him to come in here after the way he pitched in Yankee Stadium shows a lot about how far he’s come and what he means to our future. You've got a guy who came in here and used his fastball. He pitched with confidence and poise and he didn't get rattled one bit.”
Ask Hernandez about his sudden success at the major league level and he’ll approach the question the same way he battles hitters -- like his ascension really isn’t worthy of discussion.
“It definitely gives you confidence knowing you're going to be here, that you’re going to get the ball every fifth day,” said Hernandez, who is 4-4 with a 3.81 ERA through Aug. 12. “It’s just a matter of going out and competing. For me, it’s [all about] being able to compete, knowing I can go out there and get quality start after quality start.”
Hernandez has done that this year, following up a strong 2008 in which he went 10-4 with a 2.68 ERA in 27 starts at Double-A Bowie, where he led the Eastern League with 166 strikeouts. That breakout season followed three unspectacular ones in which he climbed a level of the Orioles’ organizational ladder each season.
The strikeout totals -- 154 in 145 innings with Single-A Delmarva in 2006, a Carolina League-leading 168 in 145 innings with Single-A Frederick in 2007 and last year’s stats at Bowie -- got noticed.
And while Hernandez has yet to miss many bats in the majors -- he’s fanned only 34 batters in 59 innings in 10 starts during two tours with the Orioles -- teammates rave about his calm, confident demeanor on the mound, which is more like a seasoned veteran than a rookie still trying to find his way.
“I’m still looking for a little more polish as far as the ability to locate [pitches] but it’s coming. It’s getting better. He beat the Red Sox with pretty much a fastball and that says a lot about his fastball,” said catcher Gregg Zaun, who was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays earlier this month. “He’s making baby steps, he’s coming slowly. The mound presence, the poise is there. When he needs to make a pitch, he makes a pitch.”
Seeing that in a rookie, Zaun added, is unusual.
“It’s rare. It’s hard to say [where it comes from], because he’s a pretty quiet guy and you don’t always know what he's thinking, whether he’s poised or just focused. Only he knows what's going on internally. The message that he conveys when he’s out on the mound is, ‘You don't have me. ... You think you might have me, but you don’t.’ That’s a key. When hitters sense they’ve got you and there’s blood in the water, that’s when things usually start to spiral out of control.”
Hernandez has largely avoided those kinds of jams. He said he doesn’t draw on any special reserve to calm his nerves; he’s just pitching like he’s always pitched--and succeeded.
“Since I was a little kid, I’ve been really even-keeled. I don't show too much emotion,” he said. “If you look defeated, that gives the batters more of a chance to succeed against you.”
Case in point, the lack of dominating strikeout performances since joining the Orioles rotation. While Trembley has been satisfied with Hernandez’s outings, which have solidified a staff relying more heavily on youngsters than expected this year, some observers are wondering what happened to those high strikeout totals from the minors.
Not Hernandez, though. To him, an out is an out, no matter how it’s achieved.
“I’ve always been a fly ball pitcher. I sprinkle in a ground ball here and there,” he said.
Matt Wieters, who caught Hernandez at Bowie and at Triple-A Norfolk this year, where the righty went 3-2 with a 3.30 ERA in 11 starts before being recalled May 28, thinks his teammate is just experiencing the normal growing pains associated with a rookie season in the majors.
“For me, going from Triple-A to the major leagues was by far the biggest jump,” Wieters said. “Everybody’s here because they performed well in the minor leagues. You’re going against good hitter after good hitter after good hitter. It’s definitely a big jump. … It's just a matter of pitching to your strengths.”
So far, Hernandez has done just that. He and fellow rookie right-hander Brad Bergesen have created high expectations for an organization whose prized pitching prospects--right-handers Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta and lefty Brian Matusz--have yet to establish themselves in the majors.
Knowing he can count on Hernandez now and in the future gives Trembley peace of mind.
“I think he’s a keeper,” the manager said of Hernandez.
Issue 140: August 2009