GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- On a practice field Wednesday afternoon, Reds reliever David Hernandez was able to resume facing hitters after right shoulder soreness forced a pause in his preparation for the season. Hernandez threw 25 pitches to batters Michael Lorenzen and Taylor Trammell and noted he felt good.
Now Hernandez and the club wait.
“We’ll see how I feel tomorrow,” Hernandez said.
If there is no major soreness in his shoulder Thursday, Hernandez could make his spring debut this weekend. That shouldn’t be overlooked.
Hernandez, 33, proved to be one of the stronger bargain free-agent finds after he signed a two-year, $5 million contract shortly before 2018 Spring Training. His presence in the 2019 bullpen is indispensable as Cincinnati looks to have a better year after five straight losing seasons.
Despite the late beginning to his ’18 season, Hernandez was 5-2 with a 2.53 ERA in 57 appearances. Over his 64 innings, he allowed 46 hits and only six home runs while striking out 65.
The key to Hernandez’s success was his curveball.
“What makes him good is his incredible competitive drive and his outstanding feel for breaking pitches,” reliever Jared Hughes said of Hernandez. “Obviously, he’s got a big fastball, but he can control his breaking ball extremely well. He throws it with the same arm speed and same commitment as his heater. That helps him strike people out.”
According to Statcast, 19.6 percent of the 938 pitches Hernandez threw in 2018 were curveballs. But they went for strikes 43.4 percent of the time with a whiff rate of 42.4 percent. His slider was thrown 18.7 percent of the time with a 30.8 percent whiff rate.
Hernandez and Hughes often exchanged information about their approach and how to throw their pitches.
“Watching him control his breaking pitches and throwing them with intense commitment really helps me when I throw mine,” Hughes said.
Hughes throws primarily a sinker and keeps meticulous information on opposing hitters that he shares with his teammates.
“I learned a lot from Jared also,” Hernandez said. “He’s not the most overpowering guy. He doesn’t have the best stuff, but he knows how to pitch. He puts in his time with the scouting report and I think he shares his knowledge with all of us. He’s shown me new ways to attack hitters. That’s key for him to help all of us."
Manager David Bell and pitching coach Derek Johnson are expected to be more creative with their bullpen usage this season. Raisel Iglesias will get to expand his duties beyond that of a closer, as he could get high-leverage and multi-inning situations anywhere in a game. That would leave Hernandez and Hughes as the most experienced alternatives to close a game.
“I just look forward to pitching. It doesn’t really matter the situation,” Hernandez said. “Every guy wants to be in those high-leverage situations and succeed. I think we have a few of those arms that can take care of any role in the bullpen. That’s very useful, compared to last year. I think we were kind of handcuffed with obviously Iggy in the eighth and ninth, we just had the same guys in the same roles. The flexibility the front office has brought in with different guys and lefties and righties able to go multiple innings, I think it’s going to help.”
Last year, near the latter portion of camp, another shoulder injury caused Hernandez to be shut down. He spent the first three weeks of the regular season on the injured list.
It appears that Hernandez will have a good chance of avoiding the same fate in ’19. He should have enough time to be ready for Opening Day on March 28 vs. the Pirates.
“We have a plan to get me at least seven, eight games by the end of spring if all goes well,” Hernandez said.