NORTH PORT, Fla. -- A couple of late February starts against lineups primarily filled with Minor Leaguers have not ensured Félix Hernández will begin the season in Atlanta’s rotation. But they have legitimized the confidence the six-time All-Star has shown since coming to Braves camp with the uncertainty attached to a Minor League deal.
“You don’t have to throw hard to get people out,” Hernández said after allowing one run over 2 2/3 innings in the Braves’ 3-1 win over the Cardinals Thursday afternoon at CoolToday Park.
Hernández’s commitment to becoming an effective finesse pitcher has been borne out of necessity. The 33-year-old right-hander is many years separated from being the overpowering pitcher that averaged 226 strikeouts per season from 2009-14. His four-seamer has steadily started to fall out of his repertoire since he battled multiple shoulder issues while making just 16 starts in '17.
Looking at the possibility of having to prematurely end his great career, Hernández knows he has to rely on commanding his sinker and keeping hitters off balance with his curveball, which accounted for 35.2 percent of the pitches he threw last year, per Statcast.
As much as Hernández might like to be what he was in the past, he has a greater desire to prevent being who he was the past three seasons, during which he posted a 5.46 ERA over just 59 starts. His attempt last year to primarily live by his curveball and sinker -- the latter he used 32.2 percent of the time -- was marred by a lat strain in his right side that limited him to 15 starts.
So, more important than finding comfort as a finesse pitcher is Hernández’s search for extended health. The 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner says he feels great, and he has looked good while allowing just one run in the 4 2/3 innings totaled over two Grapefruit League starts.
Hernández retired each of the final six batters faced on Thursday and ended his 49-pitch outing with his fourth strikeout. Each of the three hits he surrendered was recorded with two outs in the first inning. Matt Weiters beat the shift with a single through the left side and Yairo Muñoz followed by sneaking a grounder past the third-base bag.
If Hernández extends this success, it will be hard for the Braves to pass on the bargain they could find by paying him just $1 million to be part of their rotation. But two February starts aren’t going to completely erase the concerns created by three years worth of data.
When Freddie Freeman begins playing in games again next week, he’ll make a better effort to ease himself toward the start of regular season.
Had the Braves first baseman done so during the early days of Spring Training, he might not have developed the right elbow inflammation that will force him to rest the remainder of this week.
“Now we know how much I can do and kind of take it back a bit,” Freeman said. “I probably won’t do as much as I had been doing before games.”
After undergoing surgery in October to remove three fragments and two bone spurs from his right elbow, Freeman began his normal preseason preparations in December. He had no problem taking swings three days a week and throwing five days a week. But just four months removed from surgery, he evidently was not quite ready to combine these activities at an accelerated rate on a daily basis during Spring Training’s first week.
Freeman further increased his workload before he played a second straight Grapefruit League game on Sunday. After some swelling developed around his elbow on Monday, he was scratched from Tuesday’s lineup and prescribed rest over the rest of this week. If Freeman returns next week, he’ll still have a little more than three weeks to prepare for Opening Day.
“I’m not concerned at all,” he said. “It’s just a little hiccup. It kind of swelled up on me on Monday, but the swelling went down drastically that day. I feel good.”
The Braves took Adeiny Hechavarría out of the lineup against the Cardinals after he felt some left oblique tightness while taking batting practice Thursday morning. The 30-year-old is slated to enter this season as Atlanta’s primary backup infielder.
Minter and Webb updates
Braves manager Brian Snitker has been impressed while watching right-hander Jacob Webb and left-hander A.J. Minter throw side sessions over the past week. But Atlanta is being cautious with both of these relievers, so neither has been scheduled to pitch during the first week of the Grapefruit League season.
Webb missed nearly all of last season’s second half because of a right elbow impingement. Minter never gained comfort after his left shoulder was jarred when he was involved in a minor car accident during last year’s Spring Training.
“Both are feeling great,” Snitker said. “They were behind when they got here, so they still need to do all the bullpens and live BPs. But they’re both right where the trainers and training staff wanted them to be.”