Saturday, May 22, 2010

David Hernandez and The Rotation

With Chris Tillman (3.43 FIP, 6.75 K/9, 1.86 BB/9) and Jake Arrieta (3.87 FIP, 7.47 K/9, 4.58 BB/9) both pitching well in Norfolk and David Hernandez (42.1 IP, 5.31 ERA, 1.58 WHIP - virtually identical to the numbers he posted last season) again struggling in Baltimore, speculation is understandably ripe that one of the hot young arms will soon usurp Hernandez's spot in the rotation.  Fortunately for Hernandez, he "saved" his rotation spot last night by throwing 105 pitches (59 for strikes) across 5.1 IP, allowing one hit and one run while striking out three and walking five.  Huh?  That's the performance that saved his rotation spot?

Let's do a thought experiment.  Suppose you are Andy MacPhail and you truly believe that either Arrieta or Tillman (it doesn't matter which, or if it is both) is just biding his time in Norfolk waiting for one of the five starters for the O's to pitch his way out of the rotation.  The fifth starter you selected on the basis of a very strong spring training has really struggled, and he's now 150 innings into his Major League career and has yet to show that he's more than a useful arm for the bullpen or a spot starter, an opinion held by many scouts throughout the player's minor league career.  Now, this fifth starter just had an outing remarkably similar to the ones he's had the rest of the season: he struggled to throw strikes, he gave up nearly twice as many fly balls as ground balls, and he didn't strike many batters out.  Are you going to change your opinion of him on the basis of his most recent outing?

I would like to see either Tillman or Arrieta as much as the next O's fan, and I still think that David Hernandez could have a solid career as a bullpen arm.  However, there are very good reasons for both Tillman and Arrieta to spend a bit more time in Norfolk.  Tillman has added a new pitch to his repertoire this spring, and Arrieta is clearly walking too many people.  For both, service time and arbitration eligibility could potentially be deciding factors, but I personally wouldn't worry too much about that for young pitchers (the risk of injury is too great, and current research is having a difficult time finding a reliable aging curve for pitchers; better to have Major League ready arms pitching in the Major Leagues).

One day in the coming weeks, Hernandez is likely to relinquish his rotation spot and O's fans will get to see another one of the arms of the future.  In the meantime, though, let's not kid ourselves that 5.1 mediocre innings have a meaningful impact on when that day will be.

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