Ben Hernandez was unlike most high school baseball players when it came to the collegiate recruiting process.
Most top-ranked baseball recruits dream of playing for a Power Five program. But throughout the recruiting process, Hernandez wasn’t caught up in a program’s pedigree or what conference a program played in. Instead, Hernandez sought a program that would allow him to thrive as a student-athlete close to his family in Chicago.
When the University of Illinois at Chicago expressed interest in the right-handed hurler, he knew it was the right fit for him. UIC is an underrated mid-major baseball program that competes every year for a spot in the NCAA Tournament and consistently produces talent for the MLB draft.
Most importantly, it allowed him to play collegiately in his hometown, which would allow his family to attend games and for him to help his family when it needed assistance.
Hernandez has always had a special bond with his family. His mother also has relied on him to help her around the house throughout his life. His brother has Prader-Willi syndrome, while his father “has severe asthma and can’t really do much around the house because he will get shortness of breath,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez also has a tight-knit relationship with his mother, who caught bullpen sessions for him in the backyard when he was 12 years old.
His love for his family led him to commit to UIC on Aug. 21, 2017, which was right before he started his sophomore season.
“It was important for me to stay close to home to help my mother out with my brother,” Hernandez said. “I needed to stay close to home to help them out. That was the No. 1 thing for me.”
Besides being one of the top prep pitchers in the 2020 recruiting class, Hernandez also is a well-regarded prospect for June’s MLB draft. He excelled in numerous showcase events last summer, including in the Prospect Development Pipeline League where he arguably was the top prep pitcher.
Professional scouts project Hernandez as an early-round prospect for this year’s draft.
But would Hernandez bypass his commitment to UIC where he can remain in Chicago near his family to embark on a pro career straight out of high school?
“Guys ask me questions all the time if I want to go to school or the draft,” he said. “I tell them that it depends on the situation my family is in. Of course the draft is in my mind every day. I just think of it as another opportunity to get better and an opportunity to put my high school on the map.”
Hernandez is a 6-foot-2, 205-pound right-handed pitcher who throws a fastball, changeup, curveball and a newly-developed cutter from a high three-quarters arm slot. His delivery features little effort and he repeats it well.
His changeup is an outstanding pitch that consistently generates swings and misses. He has a strong feel and impressive command for the pitch. It is the top changeup in this year’s prep class.
He attributes his success for throwing a quality changeup to the fact that he’s had “the same grip since I was 3 years old,” he said.
Hernandez also has a solid fastball that he locates well and features some sinking action. The pitch sits in the low-90s.
He has a strong feel for pitching and consistently has strong command of his offerings.
“I think my biggest strength is my ability to attack hitters and pitching to my strengths,” Hernandez said. “I want to throw my game and not throw a pitch that the batter can hit.”
Hernandez has a decent mid-70s curveball. He dedicated significant time this offseason to refining the pitch in hopes of experiencing better results his senior year.
He felt he lost his feel and couldn’t find a proper release point for his curveball over the last year, he said. He just kept throwing the pitch throughout the offseason and found the right shape and break for it. He also believes his arm action is more in line with his other offerings, which has allowed him to release the ball with confidence, he said.
In the offseason, Hernandez also developed a cutter. He carries a baseball with him at all times, and when he was sitting in class, he pulled out his school laptop and watched the 2019 strikeout highlights of Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler, he said.
Hernandez screenshotted a clip of Buehler’s cutter grip and then zoomed in on the picture so he could see how Buehler held a cutter. After school, Hernandez started throwing cutters using Buehler’s grip. It took some time for Hernandez to throw the cutter properly but eventually experienced the results he was seeking.
Hernandez believes his cutter is now his third-best pitch and is an offering he will lean on to attack opposing hitters moving forward throughout his career.
“The first few throws weren’t good, but I kept trying it,” said Hernandez, a senior at De La Salle Institute in Chicago. “In about two weeks, it started to break about a foot maybe half a foot. The velocity was there. I realized this would be my third pitch. I have confidence in it.”
Hernandez has an oozing passion for baseball. He isn’t focused on what the future holds for his career, but he has a strong desire to play in the pro ranks, regardless of if that’s later this year or in the future.
“I just love it,” he said. “It was my first love. Ever since I was a kid. I would wear my uniform to bed or to school. I just love the game. That motivates me, along with my family.”
Read more stories on top 2020 MLB draft prospects here.
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for five years. He’s interviewed 191 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today and The Arizona Republic, have quoted his work, while he’s appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.