Livan Hernandez’s long, strange trip rolls into a 17th season and eighth team
I love watching Livan Hernandez pitch. I loved watching his brother, El Duque. I’m no pitching coach, but I think every pitcher on earth could learn something from watching them work. They’ve never taken 95-mph stuff to the mound. At least they haven’t in a long, long time. They’re a reminder that of pitching’s three variables_velocity, location and movement_that velocity is the least important of the three.
They get by with deceptive arm action, by working the corners and by changing speeds. One way to get a hitter out is to blow a 100-mph fastball right past him. The thing is, if a hitter knows the location, if he knows there’s no movement on the pitch, he’ll eventually catch up to a 100-mph fastball.
At least that’s my unprofessional opinion on pitching. I was also in the Astros clubhouse the night Billy Wagner threw a 100-mph heater past Barry Bonds in the ninth inning. Afterward, the phone rang and it was Bonds telling Wagner, “Don’t let one slip under 100 mph.”
Anyway, hitters who are accustomed to trying to catch up to major league fastballs have a terrible time with the slower stuff too. That’s why the Orioles used to wear t-shirts proclaiming, “Work fast, throw strikes, change speeds.” Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell once told me that Trevor Hoffman could tell them he was about to throw them a change up, and they still might not hit it. I didn’t understand this. Why would it be so hard to hit a pitch that’s softer than the others? Wouldn’t it be easier?
“When you’re accustomed to looking for a certain speed, it’s really hard to slow down,” Biggio said. “Your brain can tell your body to wait, but it’s not that easy.”
Livan Hernandez, who signed a minor league contract with the Astros this week, is a master of this. At 36, he’s still capable of rolling up innings and of making the most of what he brings to the table. He has an assortment of breaking pitches, but his best pitch is still a fastball that he moves up and down, in and out, seemingly throw it to whatever location and whatever velocity he needs.
He has been absolutely money in the post-season. He’s 7-3 with a 3.97 ERA in 10 postseason starts. He has been to the World Series twice. But eating up innings is his speciality. He has averaged 216 innings a year the last 14 seasons and led the National League in innings three times.
He won’t be remembered as one of the all-time greats. He never won 20 games or a Cy Young Award. All he has done is roll along for 17 seasons, almost always pitching at a high level and delivering in a big way when the games mean the most. In 1997, he was both the NLCS and World Series MVP. When Brad Mills hands him the ball, it will be the 475th, and that’s pretty spectacular. It’s great having him back for another year.