Finding that extra veteran starting pitcher that he has long craved, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo today signed former National Livan Hernandez to a minor league contract.
If he has a good spring, he'll likely be in the starting rotation. If he doesn't, my guess is the deal includes an agreement that he will be released before the start of the season so he can find another major league job rather than report to Triple-A Syracuse.
Is it a smart move? Absolutely. In the back of Jim Bouton's classic book Ball Four, his career stats were listed under the title, "Tell my statistics to shut up."
Hernandez should say the same thing. His bloated ERA means little.
The Diamondbacks were in a pennant race, and Livan’s guile and cunning were desperately needed.
When Hernandez rejoined Washington last summer, he came not as a returning hero, but as a washed-up veteran who rode the waiver wire all the way back to the worst team in baseball.
And no wonder. His record was 7-8 with a monstrous 5.47 ERA with the New York Mets.
It was assumed that his only role was to fill in over the last month of the season as the team’s young pitchers reached their inning limits for the year.
Once the season was over, he would be gone, right? I mean, what hope does a team have of winning a game when their starting pitcher gives up more than five runs?
Well, actually, if Hernandez is that pitcher, it stands a pretty good chance.
A pitcher’s earned run average isn’t static. It's not a guarantee like an interest rate on a money market certificate. Some nights he’ll give up fewer runs than his ERA, and some nights he’ll give up more.
But with Hernandez, the difference between the two is amazing.
I broke down Hernandez’s 2009 starts into two categories: “winnable” and “no chance of winning.”
Unlike the “quality start,” which requires six innings pitched with no more than three runs allowed, I used more of a sliding scale—five innings with one run allowed, six or seven innings with three runs allowed, and eight or more innings with four runs allowed.
Of his 31 starts, Hernandez gave his team a real chance to win 19 times, while getting clobbered in the other 12 starts.
Take a look at his stats for those 12 “no chance” starts:
Twelve times he was beaten mercilessly by the opposition, never making it out of the fifth inning. He wasn’t striking anyone out because every pitch was right down the middle of the plate.
He gave up six or more runs in seven of the 12 starts.
But compare those numbers to his 19 successful starts:
Hernandez averaged seven innings pitched in those games, allowing just five hits, while walking three and striking out four.
He was close to unhittable.
John Lannan, the Nationals' presumptive ace, started 33 games last season and put the team in a position to win 20 times, just one more than Hernandez.
Lannan’s ERA was 3.88, more than 1.6 fewer runs per game allowed than Hernandez.
Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals’ ace, had a 17-4 record in 2009 with a minuscule 2.24 ERA.
He gave the Cardinals 23 chances to win, just four more than Hernandez, while allowing 3.23 fewer runs per game.
You would think that a three-run-per-game difference would be worth more than just four quality starts.
Chris Volstad, who had a 9-13, 5.21 record for the Florida Marlins (and had overall statistics similar to Hernandez), was able to garner just 14 successful starts, five fewer than Hernandez in about the same number of outings.
Hernandez is an anomaly. His statistics indicate a pretty bad pitcher, but his number of successful starts is almost identical to quality pitchers like Lannan and not too far behind aces like Carpenter.
When compared to pitchers with similar earned run averages like Chris Volstad, he has far more successful starts.
If a pitcher is going to lose, does it really matter if he loses 3-2 or 12-0? I mean, a loss is a loss. What is more important is how often he pitches well enough to win, and Hernandez does just that far more often that one would assume.
The Nationals went into the offseason hoping to sign two starting pitchers. They found one in Jason Marquis and the other in Chien-Ming Wang. But now the Nationals have a third veteran option, just in case the team might be otherwise good enough to make a run towards respectability in 2010.
Hernandez could be a decent fifth starter and might win as many as 10 games, looking sharp in all of them.
But please don’t watch his other starts. It gets really ugly.