D-backs’ Hernandez embraces fresh start after rough 2013
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — For most major leaguers with more than four years of service time, a demotion to Triple-A would come as an indignity, a career setback.
For Diamondbacks reliever David Hernandez last season, though, it was a welcome change.
"My reaction? Relief," Hernandez said. "Most people are upset, not happy. For me, it was just like I had the weight lifted off my shoulders pretty much."
Hernandez credits the demotion with helping him rediscover the form that made him one of the D-backs’ most capable relievers the previous few seasons, and with a tumultuous 2013 season behind him, he’s eager to get his career back on track.
"I have high expectations for my season every year," Hernandez said. "That’s why I think last year was so hard on me, because I know that’s not even half the pitcher I should be."
Heading into last season, as with the previous, Hernandez was the Diamondbacks’ closer in waiting. He had filled the role capably in 2011 when J.J. Putz was injured and in 2012 when needed. But more than that, Hernandez was a reliable setup man.
Over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Hernandez tallied 48 holds, sixth most in the NL. In 2012, he ranked fourth among NL relievers with 98 strikeouts. His reputation was good enough to earn him a spot on Team USA for the World Baseball Classic.
My reaction? Relief. Most people are upset, not happy. For me, it was just like I had the weight lifted off my shoulders pretty much.
David Hernandez on being sent down last season
Then, last season, the wheels came off.
"I think he lost his confidence," Gibson said. "Last year was a tough year for him."
Hernandez looked mostly like himself through May. But by the end of June, he had a 4.58 ERA, and it ballooned to 5.09 by the end of June.
"I had a lot going on, just in my personal life, and it didn’t translate too well on the baseball field," Hernandez said. "I’ve got to be able to separate that a little better."
Hernandez prefers to not go into specifics, but a number of things had accumulated, and he clearly wasn’t himself on the mound. He insists that he remained confident but admits that his stuff just wasn’t there.
The struggles wore on Hernandez to the point where he was visibly demoralized on more than one occasion. It left the D-backs in a difficult spot with a seasoned big league pitcher.
"It’s a challenge for us: What do you do? The guy’s struggling, and you understand where he’s it and what’s going on with his performance, but what do you do?" Gibson said. "Do you stick with him? Do you try and encourage? Do you work through it? Do you put him in low-leverage situations? Do you keep putting him in high leverage situations? Do you send him to Triple-A? Do you bring him in and jump his (case)? Do you nurture him?
"We went through it all, and then the reality is, when we finally sent him down, he was relieved."
The D-backs optioned Hernandez to Triple-A Reno on Aug. 10, when his ERA was 5.59.
The demotion allowed Hernandez to work on figuring some things out, but first it offered him a chance to get away from the game and take care of his personal life. Hernandez used the full three days allowed before reporting to Reno, spending the time with his sons.
Once he got there, things began to come back.
"Being able to get certain things corrected just as far as pitching goes, I had some things I needed to correct, and I was able to do that in Triple-A without having the pressure," Hernandez said." I think that helped me."
Hernandez also remembered how to have fun playing baseball rather than worrying about failing. The Diamondbacks recalled him when big league rosters expanded on Sept. 1. In 14 appearances through the end of the season, Hernandez had a 0.64 ERA, allowing just one earned run on six hits. In 14 innings, he tallied 16 strikeouts.
"I’d say it was a complete 180," Hernandez said. "Going down and just being able to be myself and just have fun again was I think what it came down to."
The offseason provided Hernandez further opportunity to take a breath, spend time with his kids and sort out his personal life. He says he arrived at spring training with a clear mind. He also arrived about 20 pounds lighter.
As trying as 2013 was, Hernandez appears to have come out of it in a better place and with an understanding of how to manage baseball and life.
"My mindset is just to get people out, try to keep it simple," Hernandez said. "I feel like I’m just in a better state of mind this spring."