Roberto Hernandez’s Success is 2014 Phillies’ Biggest Priority

Roberto Hernandez‘s success just became one of the biggest priorities of the 2014 season. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

This just in folks: Ruben Amaro went full-on Moneyball.

Pressed up against the team’s self-imposed $170 million payroll limit, Philly.com’s Matt Gelb reports that Phillies’ management needed to find a cheap, overlooked pitcher to fill the back of their rotation.

Eventually, they remembered that Scott Freedman had been left in the car with the window up, and after resuscitating him, asked for his opinion.

Identifying key statistics indicating progression next season, the Phillies swooped in on Roberto Hernandez, making a shrewd investment on an undervalued commodity.

Isn’t that weird to read?

Amaro explains:

Our scouts and our analytics people looked at the middle-of-the-road, back-end starters and we felt like [Hernandez] would be a good choice for us … He gave up a lot of homers last year and we think that’s atypical with what he does. He’s more of a ground-ball guy. We think that he’s going to be better than that, particularly.

This quote is a breath of fresh air to a fan base who just last week was subjected to an un-ironic player comparison based on pitching wins from their general manager.

It also appears to be the first instance I can remember of Amaro referencing “analytics” people when discussing an actual acquisition.

Sure, it isn’t WAR or wRC+ or xFIP (a great stat to use in this situation; Matt Gelb’s original report does it well), but this willingness to go out of his comfort zone with analysis is a reassuring step for Amaro in the eyes of fans.

Because of his apparent lack of comfort in dealing with analytics,  his …lack of enthusiasm (possibly apprehension?) immediately after signing Hernandez makes more sense (again, credit to Matt Gelb for the quote):

This is not someone who is going to slide into the top of the rotation. He’s in the bottom of the rotation. But we need some depth. Again, we’re trying to get the best bang for our buck. In this marketplace, it’s tough because the prices have soared pretty significantly.

It’s very rare to hear this GM, who probably has spent more money on starting pitching contracts than anyone else over the last 5 years, describe his only starter acquisition of the off-season in such reserved terms.

Without putting words in his mouth, in both comments he seems to be trying to downplay the significance of Hernandez’s role in the rotation, and emphasizing the relatively small risk involved in the cost.

It wouldn’t shock me if, because of financial constraints in an outrageously expensive free agent market, Amaro was forced to turn to his small analytics department.

They then talked him into this small move that he isn’t even convinced will work. Let’s take a quick look at the figures Amaro referenced to see if the argument holds up.

For his career, Hernandez has produced 1.40 Ground balls per Fly ball, compared to a MLB average of 0.80 GB/FB. Overall, he also has produced 2.07 Ground-outs per Air-out (MLB average is 1.08; definitely a ground ball pitcher).

These proportions were relatively normal in 2013 (1.22 GB/FB, 1.92 FO/AO), along with a better than career average 2.3 BB/9. If it’s shown that he’s producing a relatively stagnant number of fly balls, then it is entirely likely, as Ruben says, that his HR/FB rate was at an unlucky rate, producing his 4.89 ERA.

In 2013, Hernandez had a HR/FB rate of 20.9% – well above both MLB and career average (12.5%).

As Matt Gelb points out in his original report, the use of xFIP (which evaluates a pitcher solely on walks and strike outs, and assuming a league average HR rate) indicates that Hernandez was really a 3.60 run average pitcher in 2013, not the 4.89 run average pitcher that ERA presents.

Aug 27, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Roberto Hernandez (40) reacts in the dugout after he pitched the second inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

So, in this sense, Amaro’s reference to the use of analytics in the Hernandez signing makes sense. Realistic estimations would expect Hernandez’s home run rate to go back down in 2014 (Citizen’s Bank Park really isn’t the hitters’ park that people think it is).

His two best seasons have been a synthesis of factors seen in 2013, and a lower HR rate; in 2006 and 2010, he was below league average in walks, well above league average in GB/FB and GO/AO, and had a HR/FB rate hovering around 13%.

Those seasons resulted in ERAs of 3.06 and 3.77, respectively, with 200+ inning work loads a piece.

A performance in that range from Hernandez seems possible, and for $4.5 million (with $1.5 million in incentives), and would make him one of the best value acquisitions of the off-season. Not quite Francisco Liriano, but close.

What makes the Hernandez signing more significant in a larger context is not his potential upside; it’s that Ruben Amaro stepped out of his comfort zone, and “gambled” with sabermetrics.

Again, in his original piece, Matt Gelb says that the “Phillies think Hernandez will be luckier in 2014.” As much as I like the article, that’s wrong.

The Phillies are (or should) be trusting that his Home Run rate will regress to the mean. You may call it semantics, but the sentence should read: “The Phillies think Hernandez was unlucky in 2013.”

That’s a main point of sabermetrics, that deviations from the actual will correct themselves over a period of time; and it’s important that fans (and the Phillies’ front office) understand that.

This is why Roberto Hernandez has become the most important Phillie in 2014.

Ruben Amaro has taken an important, uncertain first step out of his comfort zone and into advanced analysis.The team’s future can’t afford for him to get burned on this small signing.

As confident as fans are about the use of sabermetrics, there’s always outliers, or a margin of error.

If Hernandez is within those categories at year’s end, Amaro may feel like some nerds embarrassed him by getting him to sign a guy he wasn’t sure about.

He could double down on the talk about pitchers’ wins, RBIs, and guys who “just know how to win.”

So, this year, Hernandez’s HR/FB% is infinitely more important than the team’s win %. Out of the $170 million on the team’s payroll, whether or not he earns $1.5 million in incentives is the most significant.

We can’t afford for Roberto Hernandez to be unlucky again.

Topics: Philadelphia Phillies, Roberto Hernandez, Ruben Amaro Jr.

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