Roberto Hernandez is Not Fausto Carmona

Yes, well obviously Roberto Hernandez is not Fausto Carmona. The name Fausto Carmona belongs to someone else, and though the history of Cleveland Indians starting pitcher “Fausto Carmona” belongs to Roberto Hernandez, the two pitchers (the one pitcher) are not the same.

What I’m saying is: Roberto Hernandez is striking out batters.

He has a 22.5% K-rate right now. His previous career high was 17.1%, but that was mostly as a rookie reliever. As a starter, his highest K-rate was 15.6%. In fact, if we dig even deeper, we find his 22.5% K-rate is the highest strikeout rate he’s ever posted over a four game period:

4-game K-rate

His recent success — underscored and even underappreciated in his 3.75 FIP and 3.60 SIERA — appears to be the product of deliberate changes. That suggests he could maintain a new level of success.

Earlier this month, Michael Barr observed Hernandez had changed his pitch selection distribution, leading to new success against lefties. Barr astutely points out how Hernandez has struggled to strikeout lefties. He has a career 17% K-rate against righties, but only 11.% K-rate against lefties.

So far in 2013, Hernandez has a 21% K-rate against lefties and a 26% K-rate against righties. And it does not appear to be (solely) a trick of Jose Molina called-strike magic or the sort. His swinging strikes per pitch have also skyrocketed:

Whiff-Rate per hand

Could this be a four-game fluke? No. Because it has already lasted eight games. In 4 Spring Training starts, Hernandez faced 111 batters and struck out 25. That 22.5% K-rate perfectly mirrors his present 22.5% K-rate. Hernandez has changed something, and the result has been more Ks. Whether or not the hitters adapt and bring his K-rate back down is a different discussion, but it appears that the uptick in Ks — and thereby production — is no accident.

So what has Hernandez changed?

I am not a big fan of PITCHf/x pitch classifications, specifically the ones the MLB spurts out with the raw data. I think it can be more instructive to look at a visualization of the data and look for the pitches and changes to the pitches there. Look, for instance, at the pitches outlayed below. Click the box next to 2011 and see if you can spot differences in the pitch movement and/or velocity (with velocity denoted by the icon color):

What did you notice? I noticed a slower, more sweeping slider. Sure enough, it appears the increased movement and increased effectiveness may be coming from a slower slider. And though the slider has less velocity, the speed is actually more in line with his previous slider velocity:

Pitch speeds

His slider is now leaving his hand around 83 mph as opposed to the 86 mph slider he was throwing — with mixed success — in preceding years. Meanwhile, his changeup has maintained a 5 mph difference from his main pitch, his 91 mph sinker. But he’s throwing that changeup like mad.

He has thrown 287 pitches to left-handed hitters in 2013, and 104 of those twirls were changeups. That’s a 36% changeup rate, up from his career 23% changeup rate to lefties. In 133 pitches to right handers in 2013, he has slung 33 changeups. That’s a 25% rate against his career 7% rate.

Here, look at it:

vsLHB Total Pitches CH Rate
2008 1077 143 13%
2009 1299 246 19%
2010 1796 375 21%
2011 1516 464 31%
2012 140 46 33%
2013 287 104 36%
Grand Total 6115 1378 23%

Starting in 2011, he started using the changeup more, but now both hands are getting the Change Treatment:

vsRHB Total Pitches CH Rate
2008 918 25 3%
2009 936 129 14%
2010 1495 33 2%
2011 1482 107 7%
2012 89 3 3%
2013 133 33 25%
Grand Total 5053 330 7%

FanGraphs alumnus Tommy Rancel and BP’s Jason Collette dissected Hernandez’s changeup uptick on The Process Report and suggested sequencing benefits I too suspect:

To date Hernandez has held opponents to a .264 wOBA with his changeup and a .178 wOBA with his breaking ball. It’s not too surprising given the quality of the pitches and the improved usage and sequencing at hand. While the early returns have not been golden, the silver linings are now more visible than before.

One of the element Collette keys on in that article is the pitch placement, specifically how Hernandez has been dropping the changeup low in the zone with success. We can expand that thought using this visualization:

One of the curious location choices I noticed was how he is placing his sinker up in the zone, away in the zone, inside the zone, out of the zone, everywhere. (Click on the SI to highlight his 2013 sinker usage, then check the box next to “R” or “All” to reveal all the sinkers he’s thrown in 2013.)

In the past, Hernandez kept the sinker in a very specific band in the lower-left portion of the zone, regardless of batter handedness. We can see this more clearly with the PITCHf/x heatmaps on his player page, here enGIF’d:

Sinker GIF
Sinker usage, season 2013, 2012 and 2011.

Why is he putting the sinker any and everywhere in 2013? I don’t know. It could be spotty command (though his 9% walk rate is in line with career norms); it could be a function of small samples; or it could be an effect of his revamped pitch sequencing.

Let us study, as an example, Hernandez’s strikeout of left-handed batter A.J. Pierzynski in the bottom of the 4th inning on April 9, 2013. This is the pitch sequence and result:

    Pitch 1:

    Sinker high and away. [Ball 1.]

    Pitch 2:

    Changeup middle-away. [Foul ball, 1-1.]

    Pitch 3:

    Sinker middle in. [Ball, 2-1.]

    Pitch 4:

    Changeup low, low, middle. [Whiff, 2-2.]

    Pitch 5:

    Sinker up and in. [Called strike, K-looking.]

The last two pitches in context:

Sequence GIF

Pierzynski is about 15 minutes late on that sinker — even though the pitch is not in that lower-left (or down-and-away) sweet spot that Hernandez formerly abused. Could it be a function of the pitch sequencing or placement? Does the changeup followed by the sinker look like changeup again?

Judging by Pierzynski’s reaction, he was looking for another changeup. One of the observations we can make from the pitch movement Tableau is that Hernandez’s sinker and changeup have almost equal horizontal movement, but are a good five inches apart vertically — and nearly 6 mph different in speed. The slider has similar speed to the changeup, but completely opposite movement.

By working off his changeup instead of his sinker, Hernandez may be more fully able to take advantage of his other to main pitches, his sinker and slider. The changeup has visual similarities to both of his other key pitches, but the transitive property does not apply, as the slider and sinker have few visual links — they are very different pitches.

Linear weights can play tricks on PITCHf/x data. Certain pitches may solely serve the purpose of setting up other pitches, so a strong linear weights readout on one pitch may be the product of it simply looking like a better pitch. Nonetheless, it is unsurprising to see both Hernandez’s changeup and slider earning strong linear weights results so far in 2013.

What makes Hernandez so interesting? Why study a fifth starter so much? Well, it starts with the Rays front office. They are smart. They make a lot of low-cost, high-reward gambles — all small market teams do — but they seem to have succeeded on those gambles more than most. They have presided over: Fernando Rodney morphing from a wild fireballer to the owner the reliever ERA record; Jeff Keppinger going from an undesirable shortstop to a $12M utilityman; and career years from Kyle Farnsworth, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour and Joel Peralta — as well as hitters Casey Kotchman, Carlos Pena, Eric Hinske and possibly now James Loney.

At some point, the Rays’ success with these low-cost players goes from good fortunes to tedious pattern. And given these recent changes in his approach, it appears Roberto Hernandez may be another link in that chain.

NOTE: Hernandez’s next scheduled start is Friday against the White Sox.




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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

22 Responses to “Roberto Hernandez is Not Fausto Carmona”

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  1. The CHOOsen One says:

    I knew this would happen when he signed there… The Indians supposedly tried many things with Fausto over the years, but the Rays are straight magic, especially for pitchers. Everyone knows Joe Maddon is a genius but clearly that entire organization knows how bring out the best in players. They’d win a bunch of World Series if they could spend enough to finish top 15-20 in payroll. As an Indians fan it makes me both happy and angry… It’s awesome to see that teams can win without tons of money, but it sucks that we can never do it. Oh well, congrats to Hernandez. If I was a pitcher I’d LOVE to pitch for the Rays.

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    • Ted Turner's Moustache says:

      Seems like the Rays are the new Cardinals, inasmuch as their salvaging mediocre pitchers and squeezing some value out of them.

      Has anyone seen Dave Duncan lately?

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  2. rusty says:

    Do you think the fact that over 2/3 of his pitches this year have been thrown to lefties is a small-sample artifact or a concerted effort to platoon more (either in the division/league as a whole or specifically against Hernandez)?

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    • Two of his starts came against the Orioles, so their platoon-heavy roster account for a portion of that, but I would not be surprised if teams were hoping to take advantage of his 4.70 FIP against lefties. That strategy may and will change if Hernandez maintains his changeup success.

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  3. rustydude says:

    Interesting idea being inferred by this piece… that Tampa Bay is the destination for hitters and pitchers to get re-tooled and subsequently rejuvenated.

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  4. MDL says:

    This is perhaps the sexiest colleciton of graphs, charts, and other media I’ve seen in a FG article to date. Bravo, Woodrum, bravo.

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  5. Corey says:

    It is impressive to be able to change sequence and then become a whole new pitcher. On another note, has no one noticed Adam Wainwright with 1 walk in his first 5 stars while nearly striking out a batter per inning. The guy has posted 1.9 WAR in his first five starts. The next closest pitcher is Yu Darvish at 1.2 WAR. Wainwright has an ERA around 1.20 while have a .340 babip. I keep waiting for a post covering this topic but have yet to see it.

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  6. Fausto Carmona says:

    I wish he could have turned the corner before he stopped using my name.

    Maybe I’ll change my name, to something like, say, Roberto Hernandez

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  7. Kyle says:

    This is why I come to this website. Right here.

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  8. Sandy Kazmir says:

    Really nice read, Bradley. Thanks for taking the time.

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  9. Jonah Keri says:

    Hey Bradley, mind if I quote this in my next book?

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  10. Wobatus says:

    Shhhh

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  11. Sandy Kazmir says:

    Looks like he might be toying a little bit with a cutter too, though those could just be pitches that slipped or something. Sinker breaking arm-side and a cutter breaking glove-side could allow him to build on the fastball a bit more once batters start adapting to the change-heavy approach. I have to say that the Rays first Free Agent starting pitcher in forever is a lot more interesting than I expected.

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  12. SB says:

    Been waiting for this article, and you guys of course deliver. Great work. Watched his last couple starts. Change usage is making a huge difference, but in his last two starts it seemed that he took his game to a whole new level once he started mixing in that slider after the first few innings. I have no stats to back that up. Just seemed like once he mixed in that third pitch (and it felt like it took him a few innings to go to it), he was keeping hitters seriously off balance.

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  13. Rye Rye says:

    Wish I would have seen this article on Sunday or before; someone just picked him up in my fantasy league. Darn!

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  14. jonkk says:

    Great title, great article. Thanks.

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  15. Jimbo says:

    I get to work with tableau every day. What a brilliant program.

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  16. Paul says:

    Really enjoyed this piece. Its unbelievable how great the Rays are at finding guys and fixing them. They probably paid some coach 5 figures to fix up all these guys and reap the millions of profit on the field.

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