Jonathan Hernandez Continues Breakthrough Season
ZEBULON, N.C.—When Jonathan Hernandez played for the World Team in the Futures Game last year, he was one of the youngest members of a pitching staff that featured a host of soon-to-be big leaguers.
Tayron Guerrero, Jaime Barria, Mike Soroka and Jairo Labourt were all on that staff, and all would be in the majors in less than a year.
Hernandez noticed there was something different about the way they worked. He took it into the offseason with him, and became dedicated to holding himself to a higher standard.
“My offseason this year was more work than it was before,” said Hernandez, the Rangers' No. 17 prospect. “Seeing those guys who are now in the big leagues, I was focused on being mechanically more (sound) and executing my pitches more. In the past I’d make bad pitches and they’d swing at it. Now it’s much more about making sure all my pitches are in the zone and knowing I made a good pitch.”
Hernandez was already a good prospect before he made those adjustments. Now that he has, he’s more closely resembling a great prospect.
Hernandez continued a brilliant 2018 campaign on Wednesday afternoon, pitching six shutout innings with two hits allowed, two walks and 10 strikeouts in high Class A Down East’s 2-1, 10-inning loss to Carolina (Brewers).
It was 21-year-old righthander’s second straight start with double-digit strikeouts. He leads the Rangers system in ERA (1.94), opponents' batting average (.176), WHIP (0.91), strikeouts (62) and strikeouts-per-nine innings (12.04)
“I was ready for a season like this,” Hernandez said. “I’m still learning, but I’m a more experienced, more mature guy. Now I’m making better pitches than before, understanding the strike zone better, when to use my velo and when not. Now I’m better prepared for that next step.”
Hernandez sat 93-96 mph and touched 97 with significant running life on his fastball. He showcased an 86-87 mph slider that was inconsistent but a swing-and-miss pitch when it was on, and his improving changeup sat a steady 85 mph with fade to neutralize lefthanded hitters. The only two hits he allowed were singles—and one was an infield single.
He worked in and out with his fastball, kept his slider down, and held his velocity and control the whole way.
“His whole arsenal when it’s on is scary,” said Down East catcher Matt Whatley, the Rangers' No. 12 prospect. “What sets that all up is his fastball command. Once he gets his fastball on both sides of the plate, it’s good luck to the other team.”
The Rangers signed Hernandez out of the Dominican Republic for $300,000 in 2013, but he wasn’t a traditional Latin American signing. Hernandez was born in Memphis, where his father, Fernando, was pitching for the Padres' Double-A affiliate at the time. Fernando Hernandez later made two relief appearances for the Tigers in 1997, the only MLB games of his career.
As a child, Jonathan bounced from Memphis to Toledo to Tucson to New Orleans and all the other towns in between that marked stops on his father’s professional career. That childhood experience, plus the encouragement of his father after they moved back to the Dominican Republic, led to Hernandez learning and mastering English. He’s nearly fluent and it’s been an advantage as he’s moved up the ranks, helping him get on an accelerated learning path.
“My dad speaks very good English and he would always say I need to learn English because when you go moving up, you’re going to be with less coaches that know Spanish,” Hernandez said. “Knowing more I can have a conversation with whoever, I think I’m better prepared than before. Because when you have a plan with your pitching coach and your catcher and they are American, you need to understand what they’re saying so you can stick with the plan and make it work.”
The sum of it all has been a breakthrough year for Hernandez. He’s allowed two runs or less in seven of his eight starts, has four games of at least nine strikeouts and, in addition to leading the Rangers' system, leads the Carolina League in opponent average, WHIP and strikeout rate.
At that rate he’s going, it doesn’t figure to be long before he joins his former Futures Game teammates in the majors.
“It’s been fun to watch because even when he doesn’t have his best stuff he can compete with his other pitches,” Whatley said. “I think that’s what makes him an elite pitcher. He’s going to be fun to watch another 10-15 years from now.”
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NEWS AND NOTES
Former Blue Jays and Tigers outfielder Anthony Gose, attempting to reinvent himself as a lefthanded reliever, sat 94-95 mph and touched 97 in one inning of relief for Down East. His control was scattered and he didn’t show much of a breaking ball, but he still struck out a pair in a scoreless seventh inning.
Rangers' No. 1 prospect Leody Taveras went 0-for-2 with three walks. He’s reached base in 17 of his last 18 games and has a .374 on-base percentage.
Brewers' No. 3 prospect Keston Hiura went 0-for-3 with two walks and a strikeout. He’s reached base in 11 of his last 12 games.