Daysbel Hernandez completed his long journey to the major leagues in 2023, and he will go into 2024 looking to solidify a spot in a stacked Atlanta Braves bullpen.
Hernandez was signed out of Cuba in 2017, initially being listed as an outfielder but never taking a swing at the minor league level. The Braves put Hernandez straight into relief pitching as a 21-year-old in 2018, and he has tantalized since with his talent.
What were the expectations?
Hernandez had been on a bit of a roller coaster in his career, and 2023 wasn’t expected to be a breakout campaign. His command issues had never truly gone away, and despite some successful minor league stretches, he was mostly known for being frustrating. He posted a 7.45 ERA, 4.71 FIP, and 5.38 xFIP in his first taste of Triple-A at age 24, then blew out his elbow soon after and went under the knife. After missing all of 2022, he wasn’t much more than an afterthought for most.
Three games into his time in Rome, it wasn’t looking good for Hernandez. He had allowed five runs, five walks, and only struck out one batter in 2 1⁄3 innings in his High-A rehab. Still, those were the first games after more than a year on the sidelines, and rust was more than expected. He ultimately moved back into Double-A in early May, and to call his performance outstanding would be an insult.
Hernandez threw 14 innings for Mississippi across 12 games. In that time he allowed zero runs. Zero. Only four players managed hits off of Hernandez, and he struck out 19 batters while walking only five. Despite the huge layoff, Hernandez seemed better than ever, showing the closest to a semblance of control he had ever had. He then pitched two unbelievable games in Gwinnett, retiring eight of the nine batters he faced, with seven outs coming on strikeouts. From May 6 to July 21 Hernandez pitched in 15 games, put up a 0.00 ERA, and had a strikeout rate of 46.8 percent. The Braves, rightfully, planned to get him to Atlanta as soon as possible.
In Hernandez’ major league debut, he casually struck out the side, but his time in Atlanta was not as smooth as had been hoped. The talent was on display each time he went out, but in four outings he allowed three runs and walked three batters. He then went on the 60-day Injured List with right elbow inflammation, a concerning but not altogether uncommon ailment for a player still recovering from Tommy John Surgery. Hernandez made it back to get three appearances in Gwinnett to close the year, but there just was not enough time for him to earn a postseason appearance, though he did actually make the NLDS roster.
All in all, at the major league level, Hernandez finished his four-outing, 3 2/3-inning stint with a 166 ERA-, 139 FIP-, and 97 xFIP- — he’ll have to wait for 2024 to accumulate any fWAR.
What went right?
Hernandez was mostly healthy in 2023, showed the best command of his career, still has plus velocity, and proved he can get to the major leagues. For a player who had never had success above Double-A and who was coming off of Tommy John Surgery, that’s really all the Braves could ask for. He was phenomenal at the minor league level, and finally showed that he can put all of his talent together and be an impact relief arm. Alex Anthopoulos prides himself on building the deepest pitching staff possible, and having a player with Hernandez’s ability not even be guaranteed a roster spot is proof of the work he has done. Hernandez proved he will be at a minimum a valuable depth piece, and will have an opportunity to win more playing time in Spring Training.
Hernandez’ most impressive outing was his debut. He came into a one-run game (Braves trailing) and struck out three Brewers while stranding a single. Here’s him blowing away Blake Perkins to end the inning:
What went wrong?
Really, the only negative for Hernandez is the unfortunate timing of his injury. His results at the major league level weren’t great, but he did enough that he likely would have stuck around and had time to adjust the major leagues. As it is, he ended up getting left out of postseason action (though he did make the NLDS roster), and instead of having a solid role, will be one of many fighting for the last crumbs of innings in the bullpen. Hernandez still needs to improve his fastball command, and keep the ball up in the zone more often to miss bats with the pitch. That’s the only major gripe, and it still is a pitch he improved dramatically on from his previous seasons.
Hernandez only had four outings, but struggled the most in his last one, where he turned a two-run deficit into a three-run deficit by allowing two liner singles, a walk, and two fly outs to the Angels while only striking out a batter. This was actually a pretty good pitch on 0-2, but C.J. Cron beat him on it anyway:
Barring injury, or a Mauricio Cabrera-level career collapse, Hernandez will be back in Atlanta in 2024. How he performs will dictate just how long he spends with the Braves. He’ll be on a short list of players fighting for the final couple of roster spots this spring, and it’s hard to see the Braves passing on giving him an Opening Day job if he shows the same verve he did last year. There are areas of his command and approach that need adjusting, but Hernandez could play a significant role with the team this year and possibly move into higher leverage situations if he earns the trust of Brian Snitker.
Based on his minor league stats, Hernandez doesn’t project as more than a backend reliever now, so he’ll have to show that things have clicked for a longer duration than what it did in 2023 to really raise the bar for his expectations, but the talent is clearly there somewhere.