Nick Hernandez

Nick Hernandez

Sometimes the aura of a professional baseball player, whether in the majors or minors, can be one of mythic proportions for baseball fans. They seem set apart or in a different universe, as if created in a lab somewhere.

And on occasion, it’s nice to be given a reminder that they’re human beings. They all came from somewhere. And this week’s Cowboys Corral spotlight is on a player fans might actually be familiar with if they’ve watched high school or college baseball in the Houston area in the last decade.

Relief pitcher Nick Hernandez, 27, is an alumnus of nearby Dulles High School. He has been one of the key relief cogs for the Space Cowboys so far this season, and I’m excited to dig into the reasons for his success thus far here in the 2022 campaign.

Initial overview

We briefly touched on this in my feature story on Hernandez back in June, but we’ll run it back in case you missed it. Hernandez hails from Dulles High School right here in Sugar Land, where he graduated in 2013 before posting a 2.43 ERA over 118.1 innings during the 2014-2015 seasons at Alvin Community College. From there, he transferred to the University of Houston, spending the 2016 season as the team’s closer and sporting a 1.40 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 51.1 innings. The Astros then drafted him in the 8th round.

Since being drafted, Hernandez has been one of the system’s most consistent performers every season. He sports a career 2.66 ERA in 216.2 innings over the course of five seasons and 148 appearances in the Astros’ system, including a 2.62 ERA in 44.1 innings between Double-A Corpus Christi and Sugar Land this season. So let’s dive into the numbers and see what pops out.

Landan’s lowdown

Truth be told, I didn’t know a whole lot about Hernandez as a player before diving into the numbers for my feature story last month. But the more I dug in, the more I wonder how in the world I didn’t hear more rumblings about him given the steady consistency that has marked his minor league career to this juncture. He’s not a big name yet – but I’m thinking maybe he should be.

To start, let’s look at how he’s performed in regards to the best possible outcome for a pitcher – the strikeout. Since being drafted, Hernandez has never struck out fewer than 10.4 batters per nine innings or less than 26.6 percent of batters he’s faced in a full season at the minor league level. That includes 12.1 K/9 and a 35.3 percent strikeout rate (both career highs) between Corpus Christi and Sugar Land this year. And even in a modern game that is dominated by high strikeout numbers, that consistency is something teams can – and do – tend to value highly. So he’s off to a good start.

Next, the command. He has struggled a bit at times with a career 4.2 career BB/9 rate. However, that is down to 3.8 BB/9 this season, the lowest rate since his first pro season in 2016. And when combined with the increased strikeout rate and throwing nearly 63 percent of his pitches for strikes, that offers a big reason as to why Hernandez has had consistent success no matter where he’s been.

Moving on to the batted ball data, Hernandez has also done well to keep the ball in the ballpark during his time at the minor league level (career 0.8 HR/9) despite a ground ball rate that has hovered in the neighborhood of 30-33 percent (for reference, the major league average this season is 44.9 percent) most of his career.

That could be due to the elevated strikeout rate, with simply fewer balls in play and thus fewer chances to get out. However, there’s another key factor – the percentage of fly balls that Fangraphs classifies as “Infield Fly Balls” (essentially pop-ups) has been at or above 20 percent each season since 2017. Even adjusting for the leveling up of skill between Triple-A and MLB, the fact that he is inducing more than twice the current MLB average (9.5 percent in 2022) combined with the elevated strikeout rate says he is headed in the right direction.

So based on the data, Hernandez’s success so far in his minor league career has been very real and very genuine, leading me to believe he can absolutely be an effective MLB pitcher.

Projection

It’s sometimes hard to project pitchers who are primarily relief arms, just because it seems like good relievers can be found for a dime a dozen. Add to that the fact that only one of the Astros’ current primary relievers – Rafael Montero – will be a free agent at season’s end, and it might initially seem as though there is not much room for Hernandez on the roster this season or next.

However, at some point, pure performance plays up. Hernandez has done nothing but pitch to success since entering the Astros’ system six years ago. In a way he’s similar to current Astros bullpen revelation Seth Martinez, who toiled in relative obscurity despite consistent performance (3.09 ERA in six minor league seasons) until his call-up earlier this year.

As a result, I think that could earn the local product at least a September call-up this season and potentially a shot to break camp with the Astros as a reliever in 2023.

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