When the Braves broke up with the esteemed Roger McDowell after 11 seasons as their pitching coach — a veritable forever in baseball years — it was, the team said, for the children.
So much of the success of the Braves’ Big Reconstruct rested with the young pitchers that the team had collected like bubble-gum cards. The higher-ups went looking for someone they believed especially adept at caring for these tender shoots. Someone who could both pour knowledge into vacant skulls and keep the kids happy at play. Someone who was part Socrates, part Mary Poppins.
All of which made this kind of an important move.
But Chuck Hernandez would like to clarify this reputation he has gained for being good with the young’uns.
“I get that a lot,” he said. “But I tell people, I can coach old guys, too, you know.”
Imported last season as the team’s minor league pitching coordinator, Hernandez was asked if he wanted to get dressed up in a nifty uniform again and go back to work coaching rather than coordinating. He was stunned, he said, when the offer came. Absolutely stunned.
“That was the last thing on my mind. They had a good pitching coach here for a long time. I was perfectly good. I’d go to Rome, to Mississippi, watching good guys going every day. I was totally content with that.
“They asked me if I was interested, and I said whatever you want. So here I am.”
Like most in this game, Hernandez, 56, has moved around like he was on the run from the mob. He has coached on two coasts — the Gulf Coast League White Sox (1985) and the Palm Springs Angels (1986). He has coached across the border — the Edmonton Trappers (1988-90). Coached in the majors — the Angels (1992-96), Rays (2004-05), Tigers (2006-08) and Marlins (2013-15). There have been various minor league stops hither and yon. And even college, with South Florida for a spell in 2011.
The one constant? There was an assortment of young arms that bloomed during his oversight. A special touch? Hernandez doesn’t exactly see it that way.
“Some of it is circumstance. When I was with the Angels, I’m a young pitching coach in the big leagues and had Troy Percival (a closer) come around. So, now I work (well) with young guys. Why? Because back then he throws 95 and you couldn’t hit it,” Hernandez said.
Others in his charge included Justin Verlander in Detroit, Scott Kazmir in Tampa Bay, and the late, mercurial Jose Fernandez in Miami.
“They were all talented. Sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time,” he said.
“Jose was off-the-charts good. Like I tell anybody, my wife could have coached Jose.”
Again, he would like to remind you that he is not an age-specific coach, which is an important distinction for a fellow whose employer also has 40-something starters Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey on the payroll.
He’ll let you know that Kenny Rogers had one of his best seasons in Detroit in 2006, when he was 41. Won 17 games and a couple of games in the playoffs.
But Hernandez won’t be judged upon what oil there is left to pump from the tired wells in the rotation. This team is all about speculative drilling. That’s where success or failure of the John Coppolella/John Hart regime lives.
“Pitching’s always important in any situation — only if you want to win,” Hernandez said. In this situation, it is imperative that in the great numbers of young pitchers this team now possesses a few rise to the level of elite — you know, where the Braves’ staff used to reside in better days.
If it isn’t Matt Wisler or Aaron Blair (both 24) finding themselves, maybe it will be Mike Foltynewicz (25) or Mauricio Cabrera (23) harnessing their power. Or will the next great Braves pitchers be named Max Fried (23) or Lucas Sims (22) or one or more of the four Braves pitchers listed among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects? Or any combination of the above before the next couple of seasons are done? That will be the great intrigue following this team into its new ballpark.
In numbers, there is hope.
“You need lots (of prospects), because then you have a chance to pop,” Hernandez said. “I told our whole group of kids that we have some exceptionally talented guys; that this is the biggest group I’ve ever been around in my 30 years in professional baseball. Now, who’s going to emerge? Well, you can start flipping coins.
“But I think what our front office has been able to do is perfect. It has taken the spotlight off them. Let’s let them be kids. Prospects are just that. And if you bring them because you need them, you’re going to be disappointed. If you bring them because they’re ready you could be impressed.”
Implied in the reviews of Hernandez is the idea that he has a temperament more suited to working with the impressionable class of pitchers than did McDowell.
In Coppolella eyes, Hernandez “is somebody who can really get through to pitchers, very upbeat, positive.” The Braves GM said that, even as some of the younger arms faltered at the major league level, he noted significant progress with those in the minors as Hernandez made his rounds.
His familiarity with the pitchers in the pipeline, and their comfort with him, were other big factors in his promotion, Coppolella added.
Hernandez describes his style as direct and generally glass-half-full in nature: “I’m honest with them. When they’re good, I tell them they’re good. When it’s not good I tell them that’s not good.
“I work a lot in positive. I know what you can’t do. I understand anymore that it’s not like when I started. Guys were more well-seasoned when they got to the big leagues then because we gave them more time. Now we give them a nice check out of high school or college, ba-da-boom, here they come. So, they’re not perfect. So, don’t worry about it. Let’s stress what we can do well. And we’ll continue to work on it.”
A clear difference between the current Braves pitching coach and his predecessor is their personal pitching experience. Coming out of the bullpen, McDowell pitched for 12 seasons in the majors. Raised in baseball-rich Tampa, Hernandez was one of those guys who didn’t quite make it and felt just a little bit cheated the day his left elbow literally cracked under the stress when he was just 22.
He lacked control, walking 361 while striking out 332 in a brief minor league career that peaked at Double-A, and lacked the time to learn it. “I liked to walk guys. But I could pick you off. So, I picked off everybody, it would neutralize it,” he said, suppressing laughter. “When it got to 3-0 I figured it would just would be easier to walk you and pick you off.”
Even after the bone in his elbow shattered while throwing a pitch in the instructional league, Hernandez fought the idea of giving up playing to coach. When offered a chance to work with pitchers in the Gulf Coast League, he asked for a day to decide.
“I went back to my house got all my balls and equipment and went to Tampa Catholic (high school). I put an X on the wall and started firing (pitches) at it as hard as I could. I was looking for my elbow to tell me something, which way should I go? It was killing me afterward. So, I figured, I guess I’ll try to coach.”
A young pitcher who never had the chance to bring his talents to heel embarked on a life of trying to help others figure it out. And maybe pass along a pretty good pick-off move along the way.