ST. PETERSBURG -- Triple-A Durham pitching coach Xavier Hernandez spent the final days of the season with the Rays, and he brought with him first-hand knowledge about two of the organization's top pitching prospects, right-handers Mitch Talbot and Jeff Niemann, who pitched for the Bulls this season.
"Talbot, he was a little bit inconsistent, but he did lead the league with 15 [wins]," Hernandez said. "I think he learned a lot just about himself. He realized that the Triple-A hitters are a lot more disciplined. So he has to work on just being aggressive with being in the strike zone more often. Stuff-wise, he's good. But he still has a little bit more growing, has to learn about himself."
"He's going to be good," Hernandez said. "He still needs a little bit more seasoning, and I think it was probably the right call to not bring him up [this season]. He will be ready, and probably in the near future. He's definitely got a Major League career ahead of him."
Every year, Rays fans are witness to the difference between Triple-A and the Major Leagues when pitchers with above-average records at Durham arrive at Tropicana Field, only to wilt.
Hernandez said that the difference between the two is immense.
"Some people say it's 60 feet and six inches, and the ball's the same, but it's not the same," he said. "The discipline of the hitters ... you have to see quality pitches time and time again. Here you don't get away with as many mistakes. If a pitcher throws a game [at Triple-A] and makes six mistakes, maybe one will get capitalized on. Here they'll maybe capitalize on three. So it's all about putting the percentages in your favor."
Hernandez said that while Minor League coaches try to prepare pitchers as best they can for the Majors, he believes that playing in the bigs is just one of those things you have to experience.
"They know, logically, they're going to have to struggle a little bit," he said. "But until you get here and experience the failure and you need to make adjustments, it just doesn't sink in."
Hernandez cited right-hander Andy Sonnanstine as a good example.
"There were some things we needed to work on at Triple-A, but he was a little bit resistant because he was having so much success," Hernandez said. "And we'd say, 'You're going to have to do this to be successful at the Major League level. But he wouldn't do it, because he had success. Then once he got here and struggled some, it was like, 'That's what X was talking about.' ... Sometimes you're going to have to experience failure to grow."
Hernandez enjoyed a 13-year playing career with the Blue Jays, Astros, Yankees, Reds and Rangers, compiling a 40-35 record and 3.90 ERA in 463 career appearances. He knows first-hand what it's like for a young pitcher to make the transition from Triple-A to the Major Leagues.
"I had a pretty good year at Triple-A, then got called up young," he recalls. "When you get thrown into the fire, it's sink or swim, it's all about confidence. Guys get up here and maybe they're a little hesitant and they're not sure they belong here. So once they have a little bit of success, that allows their true talent to come out. But if they're a little tentative, that's just going to hinder their development."
In the opinion of Rays ace Scott Kazmir, the hardest part of making the jump is, "Just kind of knowing you belong up here."
"You've got to believe you belong," Kazmir said. "You can't get overwhelmed by the guys you face, the guys you've seen on TV. You've got to understand you're up here for a reason, you belong here. And you just have to trust your stuff.
"There's a lot of people who come up here, and they get overwhelmed by what's going on around them. They don't pitch their game, they pitch scared."