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Carlos Hernandez’s Trial by Bullpen Could Help the Royals Develop Jackson Kowar

From mop-up man to the best pitcher on the team, the rise of Carlos Hernandez highlights how the Royals could possibly develop the rest of their young pitching core.

The Kansas City Royals are once again playing like one of the best teams in baseball, and a big part of it has been the revival of the starting pitching staff. While names like Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, and Brady Singer have been hailed as future members of the core going forward, Carlos Hernandez has been the most impressive over this stretch.

Hernandez came into 2021 as the unheralded mop-up guy for the Royals, and he was going to be charged with the thankless task of coming in cold to eat innings against red-hot offenses. This year, his numbers in relief are less than ideal with a 5.09 ERA and a 1.6 K/BB ratio in 21.1 innings of work.

But every single month, Hernandez showed improvement and managed to force manager Mike Matheny’s hand for a starting opportunity against the Baltimore Orioles. Much like his early-season bullpen efforts, his first two starts did not go as planned as he got roughed up by both the Orioles and Tigers. Hernandez threw only 6.2 innings and allowed seven earned runs. It's safe to say that after that, he figured things out. Through his last five starts, these are his numbers:

3-0 record, 2.05 ERA and 22 strikeouts to just seven walks in 30.2 innings pitched (an average of more than six per outing). 

Another important thing that needs to be stated is that four out of these five starts have come against playoff-caliber teams, with two against the White Sox and one game each against the Yankees and Astros. The Royals have also won four of Hernandez's last five starts, in which the only game they lost Hernandez threw over six innings of one-run ball against New York. 

In my opinion, the thing that separates Hernandez from the other starters so far in this stretch is his ability to pitch without his best stuff. Sunday's effort against the Cubs statistically was great, but let’s not forget that Cal Eldred had to make a mound visit in the first inning after Hernandez walked Ian Happ on four consecutive pitches.

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While he might not have had his A-plus command that game, Hernandez did a great job of pitching in deep counts — with six of his eight strikeouts coming in counts with two or more balls. It should also go without saying that the ability to paint the corners with a 98-mph fastball, and the ability to throw an equally devastating curveball out of the same arm slot does not hurt either.

Now whether Hernandez can sustain this type of form is uncertain. However, the way he made his way into the rotation should be a possible blueprint going forward for the Royals.

Jackson Kowar has “stuff” oozing out of him like Hernandez, but his first few starts as a pro did not go as planned. But he has “stuff” that can play in the major leagues and like it or not it is hard for organizations to give up on guys that can touch 98-99 mph.

"Kowar’s fastball-changeup combo is the gem of his arsenal. His mid-80s plus-plus changeup is his signature pitch, generating swings and misses from hitters on both sides of the plate. It has a fading action, and Kowar throws it with superb deception and arm speed, He sits in the 94-97 mph range with his fastball but can dial it up to 98-99 mph with command that’s improved since he was drafted.

Kowar’s developing curveball was the focus for him throughout his time at the alternate site in 2020, and that remains the case after he was roughed up a bit in brief Major League looks. The Royals believe the pitch, which he throws with better spin and shape now than he did in college, can be above average and the key that brings Kowar’s game to another level."

- MLB.com

Next year, if the Royals put Kowar in that mop-up role and allow him to get in those low-pressure situations to develop his stuff like Hernandez got to do early in the season, it could help his development exponentially.

Kowar needs reps to develop and unless the Royals plan on having him face the starters for every team in spring training, he is not going to get those looks in Surprise. However, he can get those reps in an 8-0 blowout in the fourth inning where the Royals need three or more innings of work to preserve the bullpen for the next game. Also, assuming Mike Minor does not stick around for the entirety of next season, there will almost surely be an open spot in the rotation by the end of July next year.

Trial by fire is not always the answer, but it helped mold Carlos Hernandez into the pitcher he is with the Royals right now. If that recipe for success is replicated, it could help expedite Jackson Kowar back into the Royals rotation next year.