Hernandez takes Freshman of the Year honors
Chris Hernandez is nothing if not predictable. Miami knew exactly what it was getting when it recruited the lefthander out of nearby Monsignor Pace High.
"He played a little as a freshman for his varsity team, so I got to see him for four years, got to know him," Hurricanes pitching coach J.D. Arteaga said. "It was really a no-brainer. It's impossible to make a mistake with a guy you've seen that often. You can make mistakes with guys you see in one tournament for one day, but a guy like this, you can't make a mistake."
Arteaga takes comfort knowing exactly what Hernandez will be doing when he leaves the ballpark. With some players, Arteaga says, you have to worry they'll go out and party and get themselves into trouble. Not Hernandez. He's going home to study, or work on his Dodge Ram 1500 truck, or watch movies with his high school sweetheart, Giselle.
Miami knows exactly what it's getting from Hernandez at the ballpark, too. He's going to turn in six or seven rock-solid innings, with very few walks, and he's going to give the Hurricanes a very good chance to win. As the ace of Miami's staff this spring, Hernandez went 11-0, 2.72 with 117 strikeouts and 18 walks in 113 innings. For his remarkable reliability and consistency, Hernandez is Baseball America's 2008 Freshman of the Year.
"I have taken some time to look back at it a little bit, and it's been kind of a dream season," Hernandez said. "I think it's been more than a dream season. I never expected even half this stuff to happen my freshman year. It's definitely awesome."
"Definitely awesome" is a phrase Hernandez uses a lot. For all his equanimity on the mound and understated confidence off it, Hernandez is genuinely humble, and he fully appreciates the opportunity to pitch under the spotlight at Miami. After all, this is exactly where he's wanted to be since he was very young.
"I was always a Miami boy—I didn't want to go anywhere else," he said.
He already made quite a name for himself in his hometown during his prep career. As a freshman, Hernandez worked sparingly out of the bullpen on a staff that included future first-round pick Gio Gonzalez. Before long, Hernandez was the staff ace, and he and future Miami teammate Alex Koronis led Monsignor Pace to a state title his junior year.
Hernandez, an unsigned 14th-round pick of the Tigers in 2007, credits his high school pitching coach, Chuck Lyman, with cleaning up his mechanics and teaching him his signature pitch, a cutter that he now throws in the 84-86 mph range. Hernandez can bury the pitch down and in against righthanded hitters or use it for a backdoor strike. Hernandez kept his cutter tight and short while showing exceptional command of it. When he's in trouble, that's the pitch he turns to.
But the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Hernandez is no one-trick pony. His fastball keeps hitters honest, sitting in the 87-90 range and touching 91-92 when he needs it. He uses the fastball to set up his curveball, which is very effective against lefthanded hitters. He's worked hard to develop a changeup this year to use against righties, and Arteaga says the pitch has come a long way. Hernandez says he now considers it a better offering than his curve. Arteaga is more impressed with his learning curve.
"He's just a guy you don't have to repeat yourself to. I've never once had to repeat myself to him," Arteaga said. "He makes a mistake one time, I say something about it to him after, and he doesn't do it again. Everything you look for in a pitcher, he's already got it."
Miami head coach Jim Morris has seen his share of mature freshmen pass through Coral Gables—the Hurricanes have produced four Freshmen of the Year during his tenure and five overall—but even he wasn't prepared for the kind of season Hernandez has posted. Although maybe he should have been.
"It's been unbelievable," Morris said. "You don't ever expect a freshman to do what he's done, to be honest. We thought he was going to be a very good player. J.D. Arteaga said he thought he might end up being the best lefthanded pitcher ever to pitch at Miami. Considering J.D. might be the best lefthanded pitcher ever to pitch at Miami, coming from that guy, that's saying something. And that was before season started."
"He might be the best one right now," Arteaga said. "Without pitching another inning, he might be the best lefthander to ever pitch at Miami right now."