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David Hernandez, or, Why Kevin Towers Runs the Diamondbacks and We Don't

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It's easy to forget now, but the David Hernandez trade was one of the most hated moves in AZSnakepit history. For those of you who don't remember or weren't on the site for the arrival of David Hernandez, here's a sampling of the Pit's reaction:

Kevin Towers

you are one stupid mofo.

That was a rhetorical question. I don't really care what you say.

by soco on Dec 6, 2010 9:09 AM PST actions 8 recs

I am angry with rage


This is not going to be pretty. We're talking violence, strong language, adult content...

by luckycc on Dec 6, 2010 9:13 AM PST actions

Hai I is Kevin Towers, I make good bullpens at the expense of everything else

This is STUPID.

by CaptainCanuck on Dec 6, 2010 9:26 AM PST via mobile actions 4 recs

I think this ship best represents the Diamondbacks

It’s sinking and dead in the water, but hey, at least it’s fiery.

by Zavada's Moustache on Dec 6, 2010 1:49 PM PST up actions 6 recs

No really, I actually equated the arrival of David Hernandez to a burning cargo ship. I'd love to say that the fire was a clever reference to the heat on his fastball, or that the cargo ship was chosen as a metaphor for the heavy loads he would bear as one of the top pitchers in the Diamondbacks' bullpen, but you've probably already figured out that this is not the case. I, along with many of you, was not happy about the acquisition. And I, along with many of you, was about to get proven incontrovertibly wrong.

The disgust was understandable and plenty defensible at the time, of course. Reynolds was coming off a nightmare season, where he hit .198/.320/.443 with 220 strikeouts. If those OBP and SLG numbers look a bit higher than you remembered, you aren't alone. Even in what was his worst season to date, Mark Reynolds was better than his basic numbers made him look, and still managed to accrue 2.3 fWAR (Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement). In the last three seasons, only 10 relievers (Craig Kimbrel did it twice) have accumulated more than 2.3 fWAR in a single season. And 2010 looked like an anomaly at that point. Up until then, Reynolds had a .839 career OPS. It was probable that he would bounce back.

Meanwhile, David Hernandez spent his 2010 trying his darnedest to stay in the rotation of a 96-loss Baltimore Orioles team that had no reason not to try him as a starter. The fact that this team, which also happened to own a 4.67 ERA from their starting pitchers, couldn't justify keeping Hernandez in their rotation says quite a bit about their opinion of him going forward.

Of course, we all know what happened thereafter. The Diamondbacks' bullpen underwent a transformation from 2010 to 201, morphing from a legitimate contender for the worst bullpen in baseball history to a team strength in just a few short months. And obviously, Hernandez was one of the biggest reasons why. Let's take a little look back:

There wasn't an overarching purpose to those clips, I just wanted another opportunity to watch David Hernandez pitch, and I suspected you might as well. Because, frankly, it's really fun to watch David Hernandez pitch when he's right. With a fastball that averages 92 MPH (per Fangraphs) and a breaking ball that's so sexy it gets catcalled by construction workers on its way to the plate, Hernandez seized the eight-inning set-up man in front of J.J. Putz at the beginning of 2011 and never looked back.

And if it feels like Hernandez hasn't been as good this year as he was in 2011, you'd be correct. He hasn't been as good, he's been way better. As solid as he looked in '11, his 3.38 ERA that year looks downright pedestrian compared to his numbers from this season. His ERA is a full run lower, at 2.38, and his FIP is even lower than that, at 2.25. Even more impressively, his K/9 has ballooned from an already impressive 10.00 to a mind-boggling 13.25. Put another way, Hernandez has struck out more than one in every three batters he's faced this year.

Want some more context? Hernandez has put up 1.4 fWAR this year, good enough to get him ranked seventh among relievers in all of baseball. Interestingly, the 2.7 fWAR he has put up since arriving in Arizona is the second-highest among players acquired by Kevin Towers (Aaron Hill blows everyone else away at 4.9). Simply put, Hernandez has not only been one of Arizona's best relievers over the last two seasons, he's been one of the best relievers in baseball.

But as most of you are already aware (and are preparing to yell at me about in the comments, I'm sure), stats like fWAR don't fully articulate the psychological value of a reliever like Hernandez. In fact, I'd argue that you can't fully appreciate the need for someone until you've watched a bullpen like 2010. You all remember the feeling, no, where we cursed every ball or foul pitch thrown by the starters, just because it brought us that much closer to the bullpen, and the sound of the obnoxiously loud dugout phone that triggered Pavlovian sadness?

Hernandez saved us from that. In general, I think it's fair to say that his appearances are welcomed by Diamondback fans, who have grown used to him restoring order. Games just feel shorter with a consistent, oft-dominant presence waiting at the end of the tunnel. For all the flak Kevin Towers gets on this site and elsewhere, he correctly identified this as a need that goes far beyond fWAR, and the team is better for it. Flaming cargo ship, indeed.

(Oh, and by the way, Mark Reynolds' "down year" actually turned out to be the beginning of a massive dropoff. He has hit .221/.328/.455 since joining the Orioles, barely average for a third baseman. In addition, his defense has gone from "inconsistent" in Arizona to "an artistic representation of a dying hippopotamus" in Baltimore. It all adds up to a grand total of 0.2 fWAR over the last two years. And yes, if you're wondering, the 2.5 fWAR advantage that Arizona has accrued so far is easily the most of any trade during the Kevin Towers regime.)