How he arrived: Acquired from the Red Sox for cash considerations, 1/11/23
Who left: Lewin Díaz designated for assignment again, 1/11/23
Think of an Orioles pitcher who frustrated you with how many walks he issued. Maybe you’ve just now thought about Daniel Cabrera from the 00s Orioles, who hit triple digits for walks issued in two separate seasons and had a BB/9 of 5.1 overall as an Oriole. You might have thought about last year’s traded reliever Tanner Scott instead. Scott’s Orioles tenure saw him post a BB/9 of 5.5, with walks issued to 13.6% of all batters faced.
Earlier this week, the Orioles acquired lefty reliever Darwinzon Hernandez from the Red Sox in exchange for cash. According to Baseball Reference, it’s pronounced with an emphasis on the first syllable: DAR-win-zin. This 26-year-old from Venezuela has now appeared in 91 big league games across four seasons, and in that time he’s got a BB/9 of 7.7. That adds up to a walk to 17.7% of all batters faced. That’s, uh, really a lot of walks. MLB pitchers as a group walked 8.2% of batters in the 2022 season.
These are not new command issues for Hernandez and they are not unique to when he appears at the MLB level. The BB/9 of 7+ has been consistent across all levels he’s pitched in since 2019, and he’s never gotten that number below 4 at any level he has pitched. This is a big dude. Though he’s listed at “only” 6’2”, he weighs in at 255 lbs. It’s not unusual to find guys in this bucket who are the ones with chronic command challenges.
An obvious question presents itself. Why would the Orioles bother with this guy? They don’t have the same number of roster spots that they used to for reclamation projects. One easy answer is that Hernandez, for all of his problems with command, also strikes out a whole lot of guys. His big league K/9 is 14.0. That amounts to striking out 32.3% of all batters faced. That is a number that will play in today’s game.
At this time one year ago, now-incumbent closer Félix Bautista was just another hard-throwing reliever who had a hard time throwing strikes. Bautista’s command problems weren’t quite as pronounced as Hernandez’s are, but they were still on that Scott/Cabrera level - in the minors in 2019, his BB/9 was 5.6, and in 2021 across three levels it was 5.8. This is still really a lot of walks.
I mention Bautista because I never actually believed that the Orioles would be able to do something to harness his command enough for him to be an effective pitcher. I suppose I was too used to the failure of prior regimes at handling pitchers like this. It seemed so unlikely. And yet, Bautista’s rookie season, his age 27 year, did see him slash the walk rate drastically. He cut that BB/9 to a respectable 3.2, and combined with his strikeout rate, finished with a K/BB ratio of 3.83. The Mike Elias Orioles can pull off the transformation.
There is no guarantee they will be able to do something similar with Hernandez. Unlike Bautista, Hernandez has already pitched in parts of four big league seasons. The Red Sox have surely tried any manner of things to fix the command problems and it hasn’t worked yet.
Still, it’s worth a shot. Peripheral numbers for Hernandez are interesting. He’s averages about 94mph on his fastball. That’s good for a lefty, even if it’s not elite. Scott, for example, averaged almost 97mph on the fastball in the 2022 season. Statcast puts the spin rate on that fastball in the 79th percentile, which is also quite good.
As a bonus, Hernandez’s extension rates in the 89th percentile. Extension is important for a pitcher for this reason: The closer he is able to release the ball towards home plate, the less time the batter has to react to what’s coming at him. It increases the perceived velocity of the pitch. These are three nice building blocks, even if those blocks haven’t been assembled into a successful MLB pitcher yet.
According to the Roster Resource depth chart, Hernandez has one minor league option year remaining. That means the team does not have to force him to the MLB level this year if they don’t want to, and he can work on whatever they want him to work on at Triple-A Norfolk. It’s worth finding out if there’s another elite reliever there if they can just peel back another layer.
A challenge for the Orioles in trying to keep Hernandez is that they’ve already got another seriously command-challenged reliever sitting around on the 40-man roster. That’s Yennier Canó, the 28-year-old Cuban righty who was part of the O’s return from the Twins in the Jorge López deal last season. Canó’s first taste of MLB last season saw him walk 16.5% of batters faced. His walk problems were not quite as bad in the minors.
The needs of the coming season may not allow the Orioles to let both of these guys try to work out how to throw a lot of strikes without also throwing a lot of balls. For now, there’s no harm in having both on the 40-man. If they get to a point where they have to choose one or the other, they can think about whose potential they believe in less than the other. We could very easily never see either throw a pitch for the Orioles this year.
Still to come: That’s all, for now