By Jeff Louderback
Chris Hernandez gets no respect.
Though the 23-year-old left-hander has been productive and steady in all three stops in the Red Sox farm system in just his second year of professional baseball, you will not find him mentioned among Boston’s Top 20 prospects. Yet all the former University of Miami ace does is keep hitters off balance and wins.
There is nothing overpowering about Hernandez. The left-hander’s four-seam fast ball maxes out in the high 80s and his cutter sits in the mid 80s. Yet he is one of the most promising left-handed pitching prospects in the Red Sox organization because he is a “pitcher” and not a thrower.
In a deep 2010 Red Sox draft that yielded highly regarded LSU right-hander Anthony Ranaudo in the supplemental first round and promising University of Texas right-hander Brandon Workman in the second round, it is Hernandez who will likely be the first pitcher (and the first player) to reach the majors.
After logging a 3.13 ERA in 18 starts this season at Double-A Portland, Hernandez was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he has a 1.62 ERA in two appearances. He allowed two runs and seven hits over six innings in his first start and then tossed five scoreless frames during his last outing. If the Red Sox need a spot start, Hernandez will likely be considered.
A seventh round pick in 2010 after an impressive three-year career with the Hurricanes, Hernandez throws a two-seam fast ball, a four-seam fast ball, a cutter, a curve ball and a change-up with pinpoint command, and each of his pitches have natural movement. He possesses poise on the mound, keeps batters off-balance and induces ground balls, knowing he must pitch to contact since he does not possess a fiery heater.
“I’m not overpowering as a pitcher, but you don’t have to be overpowering to be successful,” Hernandez said. “I use my pitches effectively to set up hitters and get them out.
“It’s important for me to stay down in the zone, command the strike zone and pitch to contact,” he added. “I like to simplify things and let batters hit ground balls and get themselves out.”
Because of his ability to throw an assortment of plus pitches for strikes, and his knack for inducing ground balls without going deep into counts, Hernandez can eat innings and keep his team in the game.
In his first season of professional baseball, the Red Sox challenged Hernandez by assigning him to advanced Single-A Salem (Va.) instead of Greenville in the South Atlantic League or short-season Lowell in the New York-Penn League (where many college draftees begin their careers). In 25 starts, he posted a 3.18 ERA and allowed 112 hits in 127 innings.
Hernandez is accustomed to success against advanced hitters. Drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 14th round out of Monsignor Price High School in Miami in 2007, he decided to pitch for the University of Miami, where he was 11-0 with a 2.72 ERA as a freshman and led the Hurricanes to the College World Series.
The accolades poured in, including Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year, First Team All-ACC, 2008 National College Baseball Writers Association National Freshman Pitcher of the Year and 2008 Louisville Slugger First Team All-American.
In three seasons at Miami, Hernandez was 28-8, including a 10-4 mark with a 2.64 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP in 2010.
Hernandez signed with the Red Sox shortly before the deadline for $375,000 and pitched in just one game for short-season Lowell, allowing a run and three hits in two innings.
“He’s a super competitor. He’s got different stuff,” Red Sox director of amateur scouting Amiel Sawdaye told the media after the draft. “None of his pitches are straight. Everything moves. He’s just a guy who has a really good chance to get to the big leagues because of his repertoire from the left side. He can cut it, sink it, do different things with the baseball.”
Hernandez doesn’t regret bypassing the Tigers and pitching three years for the Hurricanes.
“I had the chance to play for my hometown school in front of family and friends, and experience the College World Series, which obviously would not have happened if I signed out of high school,” he said. “I was always a big fan of the University of Miami, and one of my dreams was always to pitch there. I was able to be part of a successful team and get a head start on my education, and I will finish the one year I have left to get my degree for life after baseball.”
It appears that post-baseball career will have to wait. Hernandez is arguably Boston’s third-best left-handed starting pitching prospect behind the 24-year-old Felix Doubront, who has already made his major league debut, and 19-year-old Henry Owens.
The confident yet mature Hernandez attributes the impressive numbers in his young professional career to the experience he gained pitching against advanced ACC hitters in college.
“I’m a better pitcher because of my college career since there are grown men swinging aluminum bats, and it forces you to keep the ball down in the zone and learn how to command your pitches, especially if you are not overpowering,” Hernandez explained. “I have been successful so far in my pro career because I am able to command my pitches and change speeds effectively. You give up fewer cheap hits with wood bats in the minors than you do against aluminum bats in college.”
Hernandez is still adjusting to life in professional baseball. There are times when he loses his command, and professional hitters make him pay, like the June 14 start against Kinston (Cleveland) when he allowed five runs and five hits (including two home runs) in six innings. And then there is the travel – having to endure a tiring, long bus ride that starts early in the morning, even when he has to pitch that night.
“I don’t think people understand what a grind the baseball season is, especially at the minor league level because of the long bus trips, staying in hotels, eating fast food and trying to keep your body prepared,” Hernandez said. “I never understood the grind until I started experiencing it first-hand. Sometimes you feel the effects of those long bus rides, but you have to overcome them and be ready and focused for the game.”
It is uncertain whether Hernandez will remain a starter or be transitioned into a reliever as he climbs the Red Sox system. Since he can throw an assortment of pitches with command, induce a lot of ground balls and go deep into games, it would appear that remaining in the rotation is a possibility.
“So far they have told me I’m going to be a starter. I’m trying to climb through the system anyway I can (whether it is as a starter or a reliever),” Hernandez said. “I was a starter in high school and college, with some relief appearances when needed.”
The Red Sox rotation features under-30 starters like left-handers Jon Lester (28) and Doubront (24) along with right-hander Clay Buchholz (27). Likely Boston will transition 26-year-old left-hander Franklin Morales to a starting role, where he thrived in a short stint earlier this season. Though top prospects like Matt Barnes, Ranaudo and Owens are projected to have higher ceilings, Hernandez continues to climb the system with little fanfare.
That will surely change if he keeps hitters off balance, hits his spots and demonstrates that he is a “pitcher” and not a “thrower.” There is always room in the majors for a left-hander who can throw strikes and get outs, even if his stuff is not overpowering.