RHP ∙ 2002—03, 2005—06
Runelvys Hernandez, signed out of the Dominican Republic in 1997, is an extremely rare species: a pre-Dayton Moore, Latin American signing that found any success at all with the Royals. (It’s basically just him and Hipolito Pichardo.) Things went so wrong in the second part of his short career that it can be hard to remember the fleeting good times he had before things went off the rails.
He made his MLB debut in July of 2002 when the Royals were facing a pitching crunch thanks to a doubleheader, and he held his own. Manager Tony Peña was sufficiently impressed to grant Hernandez another start in another doubleheader soon after, and Hernandez built on his first start with a three run, nine K, seven inning performance. With the pitching crunch over, Hernandez went back down to Class AA Wichita, but was soon called back. He was in the rotation for good for all of August and September that year, and did not lack for confidence. Rocking the third person, he told reporters, “They gave me the opportunity to show them who Runelvys Hernandez is. I know I can pitch to these hitters. I know I can challenge them. Each time I go out there, I feel better and better.”[i]
By the end of the summer he had 12 big league starts under his belt, and most of them were solid. He was set to be an important piece of the 2003 rotation, and ended up starting Opening Day that year after winning Peña’s coin flip—literally—against Jeremy Affeldt. Hernandez ripped off six shutout innings in the opener against the White Sox, after which Frank Thomas said, “We were all shocked he threw four pitches for strikes. He did whatever he wanted, and we started chasing.” [ii] It was the start of a blazing month for both Hernandez and the team. In his first six starts, he went between 6—7 innings, and his runs allowed were 0, 1, 0, 3, 1, and 2. He was a big factor in the club’s shockingly good start.
Unfortunately, the beginning was the end for Hernandez as an excellent starter. The first sign of problems cropped up with a skipped start in May due to a sore elbow that initially was thought to be nothing serious. But that turned into getting shut down for two months before returning for seven starts in July and August that were so uneven he was to be sent down to Class AA. That prompted him to finally admit he had been pitching in pain ever since his second start of the year, and it was soon determined that he required Tommy John surgery. That cost him the entire 2004 season. “I didn’t think I had to tell anybody. I wanted to show my teammates that I was there to help the team,” he said.[iii]
He did everything right to come back for the beginning of 2005, and his arm allowed him to throw a nearly full season. But the zip on his fastball never fully returned. He was effective on occasion, but overall it was not a successful year. He missed some time with a strained back and a 10 game suspension after beaning Carlos Guillen in the helmet. Hernandez maintained that he was not throwing at Guillen, but it was the fourth hit batter of the day and resulted in a brawl (with the infamous Kyle Farnsworth body slam of Affeldt) and multiple suspensions and fines.
Hernandez showed up to 2006 spring training embarrassingly overweight, and ended up on the disabled list due to “lack of stamina” before the season began. After some conditioning in Omaha, he returned for his season debut in late April. His teammates were not necessarily thrilled to see him.[iv] His performance for the rest of the season did not make them any happier. He mixed in one last high point when he pitched his only career shutout, but more representative of his 2006 was the game when he tied the club record with nine walks, or the time he came to blows with John Buck, his own catcher, in the middle of a game. He was shipped to Omaha for a while, and got the call back only when the team was out of choices. Hernandez’s tumultuous tenure with KC came to end after the ’06 season when he was cut (to make room on the roster for rule five pick Joakim Soria).
[i] Falkoff, Robert. “Hernandez Pitching Like Big Leaguer.” http://kansascity.royals.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20020801&content_id=94229&vkey=news_kc&fext=.jsp&c_id=kc (August 1, 2002).
[ii] AP. “Don’t flip out—Royals win.” http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2003/apr/01/dont_flip_out/ (April 1, 2003).
[iii] Kaegel, Dick. “Hernandez Building Up Strength.” http://kansascity.royals.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20050222&content_id=948145&vkey=spt2005news&fext=.jsp&c_id=kc (June 22, 2005).
[iv] McCollough, J. Brady. “A Weighty Presence.” http://www.coveringsports.com/runelvys.htm (April 26, 2006).