The past five years
Always the bridesmaid?
If there was a day where Hernandez's career changed, it was Jan 14 last year. The Diamondbacks had already exercised their 2013 option for J.J. Putz on October 20 - more or less a no-brainer for Towers, considering over the previous two years, Putz had 77 saves and a 2.48 ERA. However, with David Hernandez having a 2.94 ERA and 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings over the same time, it was thought likely Hernandez would then take over as closer in 2014. It was not to be: three months after the option, Arizona announced they had agreed a one-year deal with Putz also covering this year as well.
Oh, well. Maybe 2015? However, the trade for Addison Reed now seems to make it clear: there's not much chance David will ever be the Diamondbacks' closer, considering he'll be a free agent at the end of that season. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing - except for Hernandez and his agent, because if he'd been closing, he'd have earned more than his $5m career total through 2014. From a fan perspective, however, outs are outs, and a save situation in the eighth is just as easily blown as one in the ninth, so a set-up guy like him is far from redundant. For 2014, the question is, has Hernandez sorted out what ailed him in the middle of last year?
For, from June 11 through his demotion to Reno two months later, Hernandez had one of the most miserable extended streaks ever by a Diamondbacks reliever: over 22 appearances, he posted a 9.43 ERA. It appears there were some off-field issues - specifics have not been revealed, though apparently dated back to the end of 2012. However, it's no stretch to consider a snowball effect, where a poor game or two, which he'd have been able to put behind him, snowballed out of control. Clearly, there was something wrong: watching him crying in the dugout on July 25, and having to be consoled by a teammate, was utterly heart-rending.
Hernandez was glad to go. "Failing over and over and over, the pressure just starts mounting and mounting to try and be successful. I was actually happy when they sent me down. I was just relieved. I just felt like the weight of the world just got lifted off my shoulders... I had three days to not even think about baseball, so I went home and saw family, saw my kids. Doing that was a breath of fresh air... It was just a time to just fix myself in general and my personal life and baseball as well. I felt like the two were mixing. As much I would tell teammates, ‘oh, it's not bothering me,' but you really don't understand how much it bothers you until you go through it."
Nor would it be a stretch to consider the Hernandez who returned from Reno, a new man. 14 innings, one earned run (a 0.64 ERA) on six hits, with 16 sixteen strikeouts. While BABIP-assisted - in other words, don't expect a sub-one figure - everything seemed a lot better. He also ate his way out of shape, ballooning to 260 pounds in August. "I got to a point last year where I just didn’t feel comfortable. I just felt so slow and out of shape. I think that had something to do with it. You want to be out there, and you want to feel good. I got to the point where I didn’t feel good at all. I kind of let it get away from me." He reported this spring back at 238 pounds.
The violent pendulum of the year saw Hernandez finish with a 4.48 ERA, his worst since his rookie season of 2009 as a starter with Baltimore, there's a general consensus that he should rebound significantly this time around. The projection systems project him to be in the low threes as far as ERA, while continuing to strike out more than a batter per inning. And since they do not care one whit for psychological issues now apparently addressed, this is one case where I'm definitely leaning towards even greater optimism. He may not rack up those shiny saves, but if his head is truly in the right space, I wouldn't bet against him being the best reliever in our bullpen this season.