Livan Hernandez: Beginnings, Ends, and Middles

It would be hard to call Livan Hernandez’s retirement surprising, but some people such as myself were probably a bit taken aback because we assumed he had already retired. That is not meant as a slight. Hernandez is in his late thirties (some would say he is even older), did not pitch at all in 2013, and was dreadful when he last pitched in the majors in 2012. Our own Paul Swydan ranked Hernandez’s 2012 as one of the worst final seasons among pitchers having similar careers.

Beat writers and fans of Hernandez’s numerous teams will have all the best stories and reflections on his career. It would be hard to top Grant Brisbee’s (understandably) Giants-centric farewell to Hernandez, so I am not even going to try. But Hernandez drew attention, even late in his career, for other, non-fan-centric reasons. In 2011, Jeff Sullivan (who today [Livan Day at FanGraphs!] also posted about Hernandez and the strike zone) mentioned that Hernandez had a pretty bad slider in 2011. Yet after that same 2011 season, Swydan noted gave Hernandez an honorable mention for his incredibly slow, but amazingly curvy curve in 2011. Robert Baumann also got in on The Joy of Livan.

Rather than getting into every little statistical detail of Hernandez’ career, let’s look at three different moments from the roughly the beginning, end, and middle of his career.

Livan Hernandez defected from Cuba in 1996, two years before his more famous older brother Orlando Hernandez. He signed with the Marlins, and spent most of 1996 pitching in the high minors, where he put up mostly unimpressive numbers. Hernandez had one relief appearance in 1996, but his real rookie season came in 1997, when he started 17 games, pitched 96 innings, and finished with a 3.18 ERA. Even then, his velocity was not impressive, and it showed in his strikeout rate. He was not a master of control, either. But even if the 79 ERA- was likely flukey (given his subsequent career), it is not as if his 87 FIP- was poor. Hernandez finished the 1997 second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting to Scott Rolen (who probably deserves to end up in the Hall of Fame).

In 1997, Hernandez probably had his biggest moment on the major league stage. According to Game Score (flawed, but useful for stuff like this), his best game ever came in Game Five of that year’s National League Championship Series when Florida faced Atlanta. The Marlins were up against some guy named Greg Maddux, who pitched seven innings, struck out nine, gave up just one walk and four hits, and allowed just two runs. Hernandez allowed a solo home run in the top of the second to Michael Tucker, and that was it. Hernandez ended up throwing 143 pitches in a complete game during which he allowed just three hits and two walks while strikeout out 15 batters, perhaps aided by Eric Gregg’s strike zone. Fairly or unfairly, it is rightly considered a huge game for both Hernandez and the Marlins, who would go on to win the World Series.

Hernandez bounced around quite a bit after the Marlins traded him in 1999, and he ended his career having played for 10 different major league teams. He may not have been impressive in many of those years (although he was probably better than most remember in at least some of them), but he could pitch a lot of innings. And while his 2012, as with most players’ last seasons, was poor, in 2011 he was still a useful pitcher. Hernandez came back to the Nationals in a 2009 trade, and was very effective for them in 2010 (91 ERA-, 99 FIP- over 211 innings). In 2011, balls in play and bad luck with runners on base hurt his ERA, but his primary peripherals were roughly the same over 175 innings.

It was a year in which Hernandez mostly just lived up to his reputation for eating innings, but it also contained his last great game, one of his best regular season games by Game Score. On June 15, 2011, the Nationals were up against the Cardinals. St. Louis would go on to make an amazing run into the playoffs and then to a World Series championship, but on this summer afternoon, they ran into a Livan-shaped buzzsaw (or some other metaphor). It was never a contest, as the Nationals put up ten runs. Hernandez just did his thing, pitching a nine-inning complete game shutout while giving up just three hits, no walks, and striking out six Cardinals.

It is hard to beat coming in as a rookie and pitching great on the way to a World Series championship as Hernandez did in 1997. Careers rarely end on high notes, but Hernandez still obviously had something in 2011. These are the sorts of things for which players like Hernandez are primarily remembered (“remember when he was a rookie…man, he’s still pitching?”), perhaps because beginnings and ends are inherently more memorable. But while Hernandez was never a superstar, it is worth remembering that he was pretty valuable during his prime years in the middle of his career.

Hernandez pitched more than 200 innings in every season from 2000 to 2007, but he was not always just a back of the rotation innings eater. He never threw hard. For most of his career, his fastball averaged something around the mid-80s, and towards the end, even that might have been generous. His strikeout rates were average at best, and poor most of the time. While some seasons he displayed good control, it was not as if he was David Wells, either. While one might think Hernandez was a low BABIP pitcher given the above, he really wasn’t: he had -10 BIP wins for his career, and for his career his ERA- (105) and FIP- (103) were almost identical — he made up for the balls in play by having a good strand rate.

Hernandez simply generated value by pitching a lot of roughly league-average innings, and that is valuable. The main reason replacement level became the preferred sabermetric baseline was because league average players are not easy to find, and they do not usually come cheaply. By pitching so many innings, Hernandez at his best could give you the value of one-and-a-third average or even slightly above average pitchers.

His best stretch was probably 2003-2005, which were the last two years of the Expos and the first year of the Nationals. During those years, Hernandez pitched more innings than anyone else in baseball and threw the most complete games (19, two more than Mark Mulder and four more than Roy Halladay) while having a substantially better-than-average ERA-, at 84 (94 FIP-). He was an All-Star in both 2004 and 2005.

Hernandez also won the Silver Slugger in 2004, and was the last Expo at any position to win that award. He hit .247/.256/.370 (53 wRC+) over 97 plate appearances with one home run, and that home run was actually the biggest hit of his career according to Win Probability Added. For fun, let’s close by briefly recalling that home run.

On August 26, the Dodgers came to Montreal for the last time ever. They were on their way on an divisional championship, while Montreal was in its death throes. The Expos ended up getting stomped 10-3. Hernandez’s pitching was not the only reason the Expos lost, but it was a big one. Over five and a third, he did manage to strike out six Dodgers, but that does not mean much given that he also walked five and gave up seven hits, including a home run. Before he left the game, though, he did his best to make up for it. In the bottom of the fifth, the game was still close — the Expos were down 3-1. With one out, Jamey Carroll hit a single off of Jeff Weaver. Hernandez then came to the plate and hit a home run off of Jered’s older brother to tie the game, good for a .262 WPA. Things would unravel when Hernandez took the mound in the sixth, but at the time it was a pretty big play, and a fun way to remember Hernandez as he says farewell to his days of playing professionally.





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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


4 Responses to “Livan Hernandez: Beginnings, Ends, and Middles”

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  1. jim S. says:

    Rolen? Really?

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    • frivoflava29 says:

      Uh, why not? I won’t get into numbers or argue semantics but there’s a very, very strong argument for such a well rounded player.

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    • George Kell says:

      I’d be open minded to Rolen join the rest of us Hall of Famers

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  2. LivanYourWorriesBehind says:

    Livan was the true well rounded player. Bad jokes – what I mean is, please keep commenting on this guy’s incredibly interesting and somewhat unique life and career

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