KANSAS CITY -- When Carlos Hernández threw two scoreless innings a week ago against the Padres, keeping the Royals in a one-run game, he looked like the pitcher the Royals wanted to see when they transitioned him to the bullpen in the second half of 2022.
Hernández pounded the strike zone. He used his 100 mph velocity to blow pitches by hitters, but also used his other offerings to get weak contact and outs on balls in play. Most of all, he looked like a reliever, using his tempo and his aggressiveness to his advantage.
“I think we found something that looks very natural for Carlos,” manager Mike Matheny said after that game. “Everything plays. It’s hard to still not think of him as a starter because he can hold that high velocity through a high pitch count. But there are some guys that just look right when they’re put into leverage toward the back of the game, and he’s got everything he needs to do that.
“We’re going to continue to get him those opportunities and see how it looks.”
That’s what the Royals have continued to do, even when he stumbles, like on Monday night. Hernández came in for the 10th inning against the Guardians and immediately had to work around two baserunners: Amed Rosario as the automatic runner in extra innings and José Ramírez, whom the Royals intentionally walked.
Hernández got Josh Naylor to fly out, but Oscar Gonzalez golfed a curveball below the zone out to the left-center-field wall for the go-ahead, two-run double.
“He hit it, and it went out that way,” Hernández said. “It is what it is. You just have to keep going out there and competing. It just didn’t turn out the way I wanted.”
Still, all signs point to using Hernández as a reliever for the foreseeable future, and one of the reasons is because the Royals don’t think he’ll let tough outings like Monday’s leak over into the next day or the next appearance he makes. The club won’t rule anything out heading into '23, because Hernández does have starting experience, but it’s clear the Royals want to see what they could have with Hernández in the bullpen, potentially as a high-leverage arm.
“This is Carlos finding a comfort zone,” Matheny said. “It’s the mentality that sometimes clicks. Sometimes it’s the frequency, the routine, the being ready to go, almost every night. Being able to know that he just has to stay focused for this short amount of time. Starting is a different intensity, knowing you have to hold that for an unknown length of time going into it, as opposed to, ‘I’ve got this short burst of focus and tenaciousness,’ going all out for one inning or a little more.
“It looks right for him.”
If you just look at Hernández’s stat line this season, it certainly doesn’t look pretty. He has an 8.20 ERA in 45 innings across 16 games. But it ballooned early in the season when he was in the rotation after giving up 30 earned runs in 29 2/3 innings. His command is still a work in progress, too, with 25 walks this year and a 1.932 WHIP.
But there is something to how his stuff plays up in short stints, and how his personality fits into the bullpen mentality of throwing multiple days a week and giving everything in that one- or two-inning stint. Starters have to manage their effort across what they hope is a six-inning outing or more. The focus, routine and preparation is different than a reliever.
Hernández, an easygoing person who is always on the go, likes that difference.
“I like it a lot,” Hernández said. “It works better for me. It’s different, but it’s good. The preparation is different, trying to be ready every time they call you, that is fun for me.”
Hernández is still learning what it takes to be a high-leverage arm for the Royals, while also knowing there will be ups and downs in this role, too. There’s an even smaller margin for error when you’re pitching one or two innings in close games, and Hernández must learn that if he’s to stick in this role.
Still, the flashes of dominance are there, enough for the Royals to continue to see what they have in the 25-year-old as a reliever.
“I like the adrenaline that comes with it in big situations,” Hernández said. “I can use that. When I face a big situation, when I come in with bases loaded, or two outs, I can say, ‘This is my time. My opportunity.’ I can use the energy to help me. I can attack with each pitch.”