If his future is pitching out of the bullpen, so be it. Darwinzon Hernandez is only 23 and in no position to suggest otherwise to the Red Sox. He left his grandparents’ farm in Venezuela 6½ years ago determined to pitch in the major leagues and however that works out is fine.
But when asked what he wants, Hernandez started to answer before the question was translated to him.
"Everyone knows I’d love to start. Absolutely,” the lefthander said with conviction. "That is what every pitcher wants and I still feel like I can do it. I enjoyed being a reliever and I’ll do whatever the team asks. The important thing is to be on the team. But, yes, I want to start.”
How could he not? Hernandez grew up inspired by his countrymen, Cy Young Award winners Felix Hernandez and Johan Santana, pitched in the majors. As he climbed through the Red Sox organization, Eduardo Rodriguez was another role model.
The Red Sox developed Hernandez as a starter in the minor leagues until the middle of last season when he was shifted into the bullpen because that’s where the greatest need was for the major league team.
Hernandez struck out 46 over 25 innings while allowing only 20 hits after he was called up in July.
The 20 walks were an issue, but opponents hit .215 with a .323 slugging percentage. The 6-foot-2-inch, 255-pound Hernandez averaged 95.5 miles-per-hour with his fastball.
Lefthanded hitters were helpless against him, going 4 for 45 (.089) with 31 strikeouts.
"Darwinzon is intimidating,” Sox catcher Christian Vazquez said. "He has a big fastball and his pitches get on you fast with how he extends. He’s going to be really good.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down baseball, the Red Sox were planning to use Hernandez in relief. But manager Ron Roenicke wasn’t so sure that would always be the case.
In a departure from what former manager Alex Cora thought, Roenicke believes Hernandez should still be in the mix for a rotation spot.
"You have to consider it,” Roenicke said last month. "He’s still a young pitcher and there’s a lot to work with. I could see us looking at this again and giving him a chance to start.”
Hernandez appeared in only one spring training game before returning to Venezuela for a funeral. The game shut down within a few days of his return. He decided to stay in the United States and like so many other players, is working out as best he can.
If baseball returns this season, the Sox expect Hernandez to have a prominent role on the pitching staff.
"I’m ready. I’ve matured as pitcher,” Hernandez said with some assistance from translator Bryan Loor-Almonte. "In the minors I would just throw but when I got to the majors, they taught me how to pitch and the importance of working hard and locating your pitches, mixing your pitches. I learned how to pitch and not just throw.”
Hernandez, for all his physical presence, stayed quiet as a rookie. But he made sure to keep an eye on Rodriguez, even following him out to bullpen to watch his workouts between starts.
"I wanted to see what made him successful and pick his brain for answers,” Hernandez said. "I wanted to be a sponge around him.”
Hernandez made only one start last season, on June 11 against Texas at Fenway Park. He struck out the first four batters he faced before the Rangers turned three hits and five walks into four runs over three innings.
"A learning experience for sure,” Hernandez said. "I was trying too hard.”
The Sox sent Hernandez back to the minors to continue working as a starter but moved him into the Pawtucket bullpen in early July. After three successful relief outings, Hernandez returned to the major league team on July 16 and stayed on the roster the rest of the season.
"I liked it. The adrenaline kicks in when you’re a reliever,” Hernandez said. "You have to be aggressive. I used the same pitches I did as a starter but you’re not trying to go six or seven innings. You have to attack.”
Hernandez averaged 16.9 strikeouts per nine innings, tops in the majors for pitchers with at least 30 innings. Milwaukee Brewers closer Josh Hader was second at 16.4.
"I like watching Hader and [Aroldis] Chapman. They’re nasty,” Hernandez said. "I also like Adam Ottavino.”
Ottavino, who pitches for the Yankees, is a righthander with a sinker/slider mix. That’s a seemingly odd choice for Hernandez to emulate. But he had a well-considered reason.
"I like his confidence,” Hernandez said. "I watch him pitch and he’s confident in any situation. I want to be like that. He doesn’t let the batter get comfortable.”
Last season never slowed down for Hernandez. He made his major league debut in April and pitched in ballparks he had only seen on television. It wasn’t until after the season that he was able to sit back and take in all that has happened.
"My life changed so much,” he said.
Hernandez grew up helping out with the horses and cattle on his family’s farm near Ciudad Bolivar in the southeastern part of Venezuela. His grandparents also grew corn and yuca, a vegetable similar to a potato.
"All day every day,” Hernandez said when asked if he would have been happy as a farmer. "It’s a very relaxing lifestyle. I was suited for it. I’m good at milking the cows.”
Even now, Hernandez enjoys taking horses out for a walk when he’s home. Despite all the civil strife in Venezuela, it’s a peaceful spot where he feels safe.
"I was glad to go home,” Hernandez said. "But at the same time I wanted to get back to Boston and pitch. I feel like there’s a lot I have to do in baseball.”