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Tomase: Could Hernandez's elite fastball work as Sox closer?

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* Throughout this month, we'll put a member of the 2020 Red Sox and one of their most notable statistics under the microscope while assessing their season and what lies ahead. Today's installment: Darwinzon Hernandez.

16.91

The list of pitchers to strike out at least 16.9 batters per nine innings in baseball history contains exactly two names: flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman and Hernandez.

Chapman owns the all-time record of 17.67 Ks/9, which he accomplished in 2014 when becoming one of only two pitchers to strike out more than half the batters he faced in a season. He whiffed 106 in 54 innings for the Reds, an ungodly 52.5 percent rate that's the highest ever.

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Hernandez made his own run at the record (minimum of 30 innings pitched) in 2019 when he debuted with 57 Ks in only 30.1 innings. It goes without saying that his upper-90s fastball is overpowering.

What went right for Hernandez in 2020

After being diagnosed with COVID-19 in the lead-up to spring training, it was a victory that Hernandez returned to the field at all, given the struggles of fellow left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez.

And even if Hernandez was limited to seven appearances, he made them count, going 1-0 with a 2.16 ERA and striking out 13 in 8.1 innings -- a rate of 14 per nine innings.

What went wrong for Hernandez in 2020

Counted on to be a stalwart out of a bullpen that was going to have to carry a suspect rotation, Hernandez instead joined fellow flame-thrower Josh Taylor on the COVID list, torpedoing Ron Roenicke's hopes of aggressively deploying the power lefties early and often.

The untold story of the wasted 2020 season is the way their absences for much of the campaign made winning bullpen games impossible, thereby further stressing an overwhelmed rotation. Once Hernandez did return, he lasted only three appearances before hitting the injured list with shoulder issues. He returned for the final 10 days of the season.

 

Early outlook for 2021

Closer, anyone? While veteran right-hander Matt Barnes may be the obvious choice at the back of the Red Sox bullpen, there's no question that Hernandez possesses the most overpowering pure stuff on the staff.

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While the Red Sox have toyed with the idea of stretching him back out to start, it certainly feels like his home rests at the back of the bullpen, where he must limit his walks -- 34 in 38.1 pro innings -- to take the next step.