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Ben Hernandez Is Poised for a Breakout Season in 2022

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
 2022-01-22

The 2020 MLB Draft was an interesting one, to say the least. In July of a pandemic-riddled year, the Kansas City Royals had just five main rounds in which to make selections and welcome in new members of the organization. The emphasis placed on thorough scouting was at an all-time high and heading into the draft, taking a player fresh out of high school was viewed as even more of a risk than it normally is.

In the second round, the Royals did just that when they selected pitcher Ben Hernandez with the 41st overall pick. Hernandez, who was originally committed to the University of Illinois-Chicago, didn't pitch in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite that, the De La Salle Institute grad's devastating changeup, repeatable delivery and projectable frame made him a popular pitching prospect.

Last year, Hernandez finally debuted in the Royals' minor league system. In nine starts with Low-A Columbia, he tossed 31.1 innings and posted a 4.31 ERA. He also struck out 31 batters but walked 17. After missing time due to an injury, he returned for three starts with the Royals Gold team in the Arizona Complex League and allowed a pair of earned runs in four innings.

At the end of the day, the combination of competition, sample size and injury makes it hard to draw any massive conclusions on Hernandez based on his numbers. Many have been down on his ceiling as a prospect due to the lack of mind-boggling numbers in 2021. That's a common issue with prospect evaluation, and it shouldn't be. At this stage in Hernandez's development, his baseline numbers — that were extremely far from poor — aren't nearly as important as how he's progressing and how his pitches are taking shape. The 2022 season has the ability to serve as a palette cleanser and a reintroduction to the quality of Hernandez's offerings.

Between the time he was drafted and the time he debuted, Hernandez added a couple of ticks to his fastball. His 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame was always viewed as conducive to doing so and once he got out of high school, the offering upped its velocity from plenty of low-90s pitches to several landing in the 93-95 mph sweet spot and some even touching higher than that. When coupled with a changeup that very well may have been the best in his draft class, Hernandez has a solid one-two punch that can keep hitters honest.

In the summer of 2020, Hernandez's curveball was an iffy pitch. It was very early in its development and didn't have the movement nor consistency required to be a legitimate get-over option. While playing for Columbia, albeit in that aforementioned limited sample size, the pitch was vastly improved. It still doesn't come close to sniffing his changeup, but having even a sharp third tool in the box is great for someone who won't turn 21 until July 1. The new-and-improved pitch made a fan at Inside the Royals all the way back in May of last year.

Hernandez is a bright player with a bright future. He's studied the game relentlessly ever since he was in high school and when the pandemic stopped him from boosting his draft stock as a senior, he pushed through and managed to impress teams anyway. It's still extremely early and, sure, maybe he won't pan out to be another top-shelf prospect that Royals followers are desperately looking for. Nothing thus far has dulled this writer's outlook on him, though. He's a perfect fit in Kansas City's trend of quality arms and quality human beings.

Despite the injury and relatively brief 2021 slate, don't be discouraged by Hernandez's year. If anything, be encouraged by it. He battled through adversity in year one as a professional, added some velocity to his fastball, improved his curveball and maintained the same lethal changeup that drew the Royals to him initially. Hernandez isn't going to be ready for MLB action for a couple of seasons but in 2022, he's a prospect to watch and could have a breakout that results in him rising up from MLB.com's No. 15 ranking within the Royals organization.

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