There is no such thing as having too many groundball pitchers.
Not for a team playing 81 regular season games at Citizens Bank Park, a place that led the National League in 2009 with 2.56 homers per contest. Over 10% of the big flies served up at the Bank last season would NOT have left 25 other major league parks, including five that wouldn’t have been home runs in any other city.
Common sense dictates that a successful way to combat the unfriendly elements of a bandbox would be to compile a group of groundball pitchers, because, well, it’s hard for a ball to leave the yard on the ground.
Enter David Herndon: a 6’5, 230 lb. righthanded pitcher from Panama City, Florida. Before the Phillies selected Herndon with the 17th and final pick of the Major League portion of December’s Rule Five draft, the 2006 fifth round choice had spent the last four seasons touring the various levels of the Angels’ farm system.
Herndon worked as a starter during his first two assignments in Low-A, but struggles at High-A Rancho Cucamonga resulted in a common change for a 22 year-old pitcher — a shift from starter to reliever. Herndon responded by posting 17 saves, enough to warrant a promotion to Double-A Arkansas.
Pitching a full season out of the bullpen in 2009, Herndon compiled a 3.03 ERA in 65 1/3 innings. As he had done throughout the entirety of his minor league career, Herndon exhibited tremendous command, walking only fourteen batters total — or, in reliever terms, about one per five innings. In four minor league seasons at four different levels, Herndon has walked 60 batters in 387 innings pitched — a 1.4 BB/9 rate. For contextual purposes (not comparing the majors to the minors) Chad Durbin walked 47 batters in 69 innings last year.
Herndon is not overpowering and strikeouts have never been part of his repertoire – he whiffs about five batters per nine innings. The avoidance of walks and home runs, however, as well as the ability to produce grounders, has helped him avoid danger. Granted, his ’09 home run rate (9 allowed in 65 innings) represents an unimpressive total, but for his career, he’s served up only one longball per eleven innings. This would be equivalent to roughly five homers allowed during a typical relief season.
His locker bordering only the exit of the team clubhouse, Herndon appeared a longshot to make the Phillies 25-man roster five weeks ago. But an impressive Spring (eight scoreless innings,) combined with lingering injuries to key relievers (Brad Lidge and JC Romero,) have changed things quite a bit.
As it stands now, Herndon will likely make the team as the twelfth and final pitcher. Assuming Jamie Moyer wins the “competition” for the fifth starter’s job, the Phillies opening day staff will look as follows:
Rotation: Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, J.A. Happ, Moyer.
Bullpen: Ryan Madson, Danys Baez, Chad Durbin, Jose Contreras, Kyle Kendrick, Antonio Bastardo, Herndon.
If Lidge is able to come off the Disabled List in early April it is quite possible that all of Herndon’s success will be for naught; barring time on the DL, Herndon’s Rule Five status requires that he remain on the Phillies 25-man roster all season or be offered back to the Angels. Herndon could very well be the 2010 version of Tim Lahey.
If he keeps pitching well, though, the sinkerballing Herndon will be a tough pitcher to give up on. In two scoreless innings during Monday’s 9-7 win over the Yankees, he gave the Phils six stabilizing outs in relief of “last year’s Cole Hamels.” Herndon cruised through the fifth, throwing only five pitches, and dispatched of Nick Swisher with two men on to end the sixth.
The key stat? Four of his six outs were of the groundball variety.
“I’m trying not to think about stuff that is out of my hands,” Herndon responded after the game, when asked about his uncertain future with the Phils. “Pitch, get outs, let it all take care of itself.”
Up to this point, he has done everything possible to make the decision easier (or harder, depending on how you look at it) for Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee, two men who know that a team can never have enough groundball pitchers. As stated in yesterday’s piece, they knew it when they welcomed Danys Baez, and both now recognize it with Herndon. Success on the ground is hard to ignore.
David Herndon is proving it more and more each day.