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Ariel Hernandez's Curveball Draws Raves

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The new pitcher comes in for low Class A Dayton. He’s tall. Skinny. He wears No. 70. Hmm. Odd number.

The first pitch comes out of his hand. 98 mph. Strike one. Not a ton of effort. Big fastball with movement.

Another fastball, 97 mph well out of the zone. Overthrew it. A little wild. He struggles to find the zone at times.

Another fastball. Another strike. 97 mph. OK, so that velocity isn’t a fluke.

And then it comes. A curveball that is better than the fastball. It’s a hard heat-seaking hammer at 87 mph. Strike three. It’s a swing and a miss. A bad miss. The batter lets out a slight chuckle as he heads back to the dugout. Looks over to the Dayton dugout as he recognizes the absurdity of trying to hit that pitch.

Who is this guy? Where did he come from? Signed by the Giants. Spent six years in the complex leagues. Never made it out of Rookie ball. Released. Indy ball.

Found by the Diamondbacks. Minor league Rule 5 pick. Never pitched in full-season ball before this year. It doesn’t seem to add up. Oh, the walk rate. 9.5 walks per nine. 12 walks per nine. 14 walks per nine. Nuke Laloosh wild.

But he doesn’t seem all that wild anymore. He’s not hitting spots, but he’s not missing badly. And with this kind of arm, he’ll never need to be too fine.

Ariel Hernandez seems to be a package of contradictions. But few players in the minor leagues have a better one-two punch than Hernandez’s fastball/curveball. And that makes him one of the most fascinating under the radar prospects in baseball. It’s not often that scouts see a pitcher who touches 100 mph and sits 96-98 and come away barely mentioning his fastball, but with Hernandez, the curveball makes the fastball seem like an afterthought.

Multiple scouts have given his curveball a 70 grade on the 20-80 scale. Some argue that it could end up as an 80 pitch eventually, as the biggest thing holding it back from that grade right now is his ability to command it.

To be an 80, a pitch needs to pretty close to perfect, and that includes throwing where you want time after time. It’s a hard curveball. It comes in at 85-88 mph and looks like a fastball out of his hand. It has late break. When he throws it right, which is something he does more regularly now, it’s a diabolical pitch.

“The curveball is the thing everyone talks about. I don’t know if that’s due to the velocity in the game now or just a credit to the pitch,” Reds farm director Jeff Graupe said.

The stats back it up. Swings and misses on his curveball rank in the 95th percentile of the minors. His fastball earns similar grades. Pitchers with two double-plus pitches are extremely rare. Finding ones who have been available in the minor league Rule 5 draft (where a player can be picked for $12,000 and no further questions asked) is almost impossible. That’s Hernandez.

Until this year, he has been too wild for it to matter. He’s still wild, but after finally reaching full-season ball and earning a promotion to high Class A, he is starting to find more control. The Reds added Hernandez to their 40-man roster Thursday. They had no choice. Even though he’s still walking more four batters every nine innings. Even though he’s a 24-year-old in Class A. They know if they didn’t, someone is going to pick him in the Rule 5 draft.

Being put on the 40-man roster itself is a massive change from where Hernandez was just 17 months ago, when he was released by the Giants. At the time, Hernandez was coming off a shoulder injury that had cost him the 2014 season. With his once high-90s fastball sitting in the low-90s, Hernandez seemed like a pitcher whose career might be finished before it ever started.

But as Hernandez debated heading home to the Dominican Republic, there was a voice telling him to stay. Hernandez’s turnaround began with a girl he’d just met.

“When I got cut I didn’t know if I was going home or going to stay,” Hernandez said. “My wife (Myriah) was the one who asked me to stay and don’t give up. But the funny thing is at that time she wasn’t my wife. “I met her Feb. 27 and was cut on March 9. Without knowing me very well, she supported me from day one.”

Hernandez was smart. He not only kept trying, eventually he married the woman who kept pushing him to keep trying. He went to some tryouts. There he met the Bryks. Bill Bryk, a special assistant for the Diamondbacks, and his son Billy Bryk Jr., a pitching coach in independent baseball.

In the span of two sessions, Billy Bryk got Hernandez to load more over the rubber, bringing his front leg further back early in his delivery and adding a hip turn to ensure his arm didn’t trail his lower half.

“For most part he was breaking in front of the rubber. We teach power delivery. Get your glove hand back to your back shoulder. Sometimes they don’t load back to that throwing shoulder.Get that knee back to in line with third base at least if you are righthander. Get back and let your arm catch up to your body. It gives you a chance of full extension,” Bryk Jr. said.

Within two sessions, Hernandez was throwing 95-97 again.

“His eyes lit up,” Bryk Jr. said.

The Diamondbacks were interested but they wanted to see him continue to get better. So Hernandez signed on with the Frontier Greys, the independent Frontier League’s travel team, so he could continue to work with Billy Bryk (who is now a pitching coach in the Mets system).

Arguably success came too soon. He was popping 99-100 mph by the end of the Greys’ brief spring training. After just two outings, with other team’s scouts flying in to see him, the Diamondbacks signed him and sent him to extended spring training.

“Bill Bryk and his son have been the biggest parts of my career. Them and my wife. They built my confidence,” Hernandez said.

The stuff was back, but the control wasn’t much better. He walked 21 batters in 22 innings at short-season Hillsboro. When the season was over, the Diamondbacks protected him on their Double-A roster. With the first pick of the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft the Reds picked him. And the next step in Hernandez’s development began.

“When I first saw him in spring training, I had to do some research,” Dayton pitching coach Derrin Ebert said. “I didn’t know the kid. I didn’t know where he came from. I saw he had a really high walk rate, but I couldn’t figure out why with a curveball like that.”

What Ebert quickly found was that Hernandez wasn’t getting to the curveball often because he always opened with his fastball and inevitably dug himself into a hole with it.

“His whole philosophy because he threw 98-99 was fastball-fastball-fastball. He didn’t get to use the curveball because he fell behind in counts,” Ebert said. “I pulled him aside and said ‘We’re going to take a different viewpoint. I want you to pitch like you’re a lefthanded thumber.

“Throw that curveball early in the count. He throws the curveball more for strikes than his fastball. If he shows that curveball early in the count, he gets them to chase the fastball out of the zone more often.”

More curveballs led to more success. Hernandez walked 5.7 batters per nine innings this year. It’s still too many. But it’s also a rate that has shown steady improvement through the season. No one gets comfortable at-bats against the righthander. Hitters might walk, but they rarely connect, with opponent averages of .136/.272/.164 against Hernandez this year. He allowed four extra-base hits all season.

Hernandez isn’t close to a finished product. He might never be. But he’s a reliever with a chance to have two dominating pitches. Pitchers like that get plenty of chances, and Hernandez is working hard to take advantage of the opportunity.

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The former phenom is rebuilding arm strength on a minor league rehab assignment after he had major shoulder surgery last year.

“I’m working hard to get to that goal,” Hernandez said. “The goal is to keep getting better. Good isn’t good enough. I want to make it to the big leagues.”

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