You’d have to be a nitpick to find the low points in David Hernandez’s first two seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks. You’d have to be legally blind to miss them this season.
On Saturday, the 28-year-old right-hander — who is earning $1.25 million this season, after garnering a two-year, $3.25 million extension in June of last year — was optioned to Triple-A Reno.
In 48.1 innings pitched for the Diamondbacks this season, Hernandez had allowed 30 earned runs, including the two he allowed in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the New York Mets. Though tallying 50 strikeouts, Hernandez has been docked with six losses and five blown saves on the season. He has allowed 10 home runs, and 21 extra-base hits, causing his ERA to balloon to 5.59.
“It’s been a pretty rough year,” Hernandez said following the demotion.
Indeed, it has, especially when juxtaposed with his previous two seasons. Over 137.2 innings pitched in 2011-12, Hernandez had a 2.94 ERA, allowing only eight home runs while striking out 175. Between the two years, he had six losses — as many as he’s taken this year.
“The game’s kind of been cruel to him,” manager Kirk Gibson explained.
“Sometimes you get bad breaks,” he added the next day, “but all in all, we’re all responsible for how things turn out and David is.”
One bad break came Saturday, when Mets centerfielder Juan Lagares laid down a weak bunt to third baseman Martin Prado, advancing Eric Young Jr. to scoring position. Typically, the play would have resulted in a sacrifice out, but Prado’s barehanded attempt failed leaving two men on, none out.
Such breaks, bullpen-mate Heath Bell says, are difficult for relievers to cope with.
“It seems like every time he’d leave a pitch up, it would get hit,” Bell explained Sunday.
“Or he’d have some bad luck, like the bunt the other day,” he added. “Nine times out of ten, Martin comes up with that ball,” he said. “But it just seems like everything’s going against him.
“He just has to start making his own luck.”
On the mound, the issue for Hernandez this season doesn’t seem to be a drop in velocity nor movement; the problem has been control and location. And, says Gibson and Bell, a loss of confidence.
“When you lose your confidence,” said Gibson, while talking about Hernandez’s struggles the day after the fifth-year reliever was sent back to the minors, “you have a hard time pitching to your strengths.”
Throughout the couple of minutes of explication, Gibson remained candid, exuding an aura of confidence in the relief arm he sent to Reno the night before, seemingly unworried and unfazed by the situation.
“Anyone can lose their confidence in anything they do in life,” he said with a subtle shrug, as if to play things down.
“A lot of it has to do with conviction.”
Throughout the 2013 season, Hernandez has struggled to attack hitters the way he has in the past. Batters have been jumping all over him early in at-bats, collectively hitting 9-for-22 (.409) with a 1.071 OPS on Hernandez’s first pitch.
“Somewhere along the line, I think he just started second guessing pitches or something,” said Bell.
“You’ve got to have confidence in yourself, and I think David started lacking that, started questioning.”
The 35-year-old bullpen veteran went on to explain the slippery slope of lost confidence.
“It can get to you and it can snowball really quick.”
The proposition is totally believable. Why else would a talented reliever who has lost no velocity whatsoever and has done nothing but mimic his pitch mixing from years past fall into the tribulation Hernandez has encountered this season?
But that begs a follow-up question: why the loss of confidence? Why now, after the best two years in his career? Why now, after the Diamondbacks’ vote of confidence in him in the form of a multi-million dollar extension?
Gibson and Bell have an explanation for that, too.
“Sometimes you have years where there’s many elements involved, a lot going on in people’s lives that can influence that,” says Gibson. “(He) just had a tough year, things started out and they snowballed, and you get lost out there.”
If the team manager’s words count for anything, for the time being, it seems that the stress of pitching in the majors is too much for the seemingly weighed-down pitcher.
“We thought we’d take the pressure off him here and put him in a different position.”
The manager stopped there, but the allusion itself was illuminating. It made too much sense — personal life, things happening off the field and off the mound were gnawing at Hernandez; things that he was, perhaps, bearing on the mound in the always-pressurized life of a back-end reliever.
Bell corroborated his skipper’s report.
“I just know that there are certain things going on, and I don’t know the whole story,” he said, measuring his testimony.
“People have just told me certain things are going on. Those were the exact words.”
A breath or two later, Bell became more lucid.
“If you’ve got a good family life, you’ve got a good personal life, baseball I think is easy. If you have a struggle outside of baseball, baseball becomes hard.”
Yet, whatever the off-the-field issue — whatever the loss of confidence is stemming from — the organization is overstated in their belief in Hernandez and his ability to recover.
“Within two weeks, he’ll be back,” said Bell. “Easily. Ten to 15 days he’ll get it figured out.”
That, for one, is something David Hernandez himself, the man who’s been enshrouded by his own trials, can give credence to.
“I’ve been sent down before and I’ve always come back better,” he said Saturday.
“So hopefully that’s what will happen.”