When the Washington Nationals signed the aging Livan Hernandez to a minor-league contract following the 2009 season, the move was met with a yawn and a shrug.
Hernandez—who claimed to be 34 at the time—had just completed his fourth consecutive bad year in which he combined to go 46-47 with a 5.28 ERA.
The Mets had released him late in 2009, and the woeful Nationals soon signed him, giving him six starts at the end of the year.
He pitched even worse, allowing a 6.23 ERA with Washington along with a .314 batting average-against.
And yet—somehow—the Cuban defector found himself in the 2010 starting rotation and he flourished, finishing the season as the Nationals’ best starter. He pitched 200 innings, won 10 games and his 3.66 ERA was his lowest since 2003.
Shortly after the season ended, Hernandez was quickly re-signed to a one-year, $1 million contract. Manager Jim Riggleman announced formally yesterday afternoon what most of us already assumed: Livan will be the team’s Opening Day starter.
But will Hernandez perform one more year of sleight-of-hand magic and keep that oh-so-slow fastball out of the upper deck of National League ballparks, or will he revert back to his days when his ERA and his waistline were equally bloated?
We all remember Hernandez’ start last season, when for the first two months of the year he was one of the best pitchers in the league.
Even by mid-season, he was still formidable. The second half of the season, though, seemed pretty ugly.
So will the Nationals get the Livan of the first half of 2010 or the second half? Surprisingly, the numbers don’t suggest as much difference as I remember.
Let’s compare his statistics from 2010, from Opening Day to July 1 and from July 6 to the end of the season:
Innings Per Game:
Batting Average/On-Base/Slugging Percentage Against
Hits/Walks/Strikeouts Per Nine Innings:
BABIP (Batting Average for Balls in Play):
Those first six weeks were pretty special for Hernandez. In his first eight games, he had an ERA of 1.62, and he didn’t see his ERA go over 3.00 for good until July.
But really, his second-half numbers were certainly strong enough that the Nationals were in a position to win most of them.
And Livan did not wear down as I had initially thought. Take a look at his ERA breakdown over the course of the year:
First eight starts: 1.62
Second eight starts: 4.50
Third eight starts: 3.29
Last nine starts: 5.33
It wasn’t that his career 3,000 innings began to take their toll, but rather Livan Hernandez either performs at one extreme or the other.
In one three-game stretch in late August, Hernandez game up 20 runs in 14 innings. But in the four games that preceded them, he had a 2.28 ERA and a .255 batting average against.
And in the five games that followed, he crafted a 2.81 ERA and allowed just a .265 batting average against.
True, those last nine games of the season look a little ugly with that 5.33 ERA, and they seem the product of wear and tear on an aging pitcher.
But the last five of those nine games were superb. He allowed just a 2.81 ERA and a .269/.318/.403 slash line.
In other words, he finished the season as strongly as he started it.
This is purely a subjective assessment, but I think Livan has one more good year left in him, and the Nationals desperately need it.
Oh, his 10 or so wins won’t make much of a difference this year, but another 200-inning campaign will surely take the strain off the bullpen, as the young pitchers struggle to improve against major league hitters.
This time next year will find Livan Hernandez in someone else’s uniform, replaced by a healthy Stephen Strasburg. But what he did for the Nationals in 2010—and hopefully this year—will not be forgotten.