Livan Hernandez is retiring, officially. Two things: Hernandez didn’t pitch in 2013. And Matt Klaassen is already writing something up about his career. Which means this is two posts about Livan Hernandez in the middle of spring training preceding a season following a season in which Hernandez was inactive. You can’t say FanGraphs doesn’t give the people what they want. The people want more content about Livan Hernandez, even if they don’t actually realize it.
This isn’t intended as a grand retrospective. I’m here to talk about one thing and one thing only, the way in which Livan Hernandez was unusual and the way in which Livan Hernandez survived. Watching him, you would’ve been justified in finding Hernandez profoundly uninteresting, and you might’ve wondered how he hung around so long. A little analysis reveals that Hernandez managed to pitch on his own terms. Everyone remembers Hernandez for the Eric Gregg strike zone. Fewer people remember that, for Hernandez, that strike zone wasn’t too far out of the ordinary.
A shame here is that we don’t have PITCHf/x information before 2007, or, really, before 2008. The best glimpse we have of Hernandez is of the end of his career, when his repertoire had maximally deteriorated. But from that information, we can make some assumptions about the younger Hernandez, and, I feel like I should show you some images. Via Texas Leaguers, here’s Hernandez’s called PITCHf/x strike zone against right-handed hitters:
Now, here’s that zone against left-handed hitters:
Hernandez lived away, around and beyond the outside edge. He almost never pitched inside against righties, and he only seldom pitched inside against lefties. He aimed for the same spots, and he hit the same spots, and the result of this was that Hernandez got to pitch to his own strike zone, as opposed to the strike zone that is defined in the MLB rule book.
Here’s a table of data, from StatCorner. It compares Hernandez against the league average during his PITCHf/x window. The zTkS% column shows the rate of pitches taken in the zone for strikes, and the oTkS% column shows the rate of pitches taken outside of the zone for strikes. The left column of each pair is Hernandez; the right column of each pair is the league in which he pitched.
Every year, Hernandez lost fewer strikes in the zone. Every year, Hernandez gained more strikes outside of the zone. This should be convincing enough, but let me try one more approach.
Between 2008-2012, there were 1,322 individual pitcher-seasons with at least 1,000 pitches thrown. Hernandez threw five of them. For each pitcher-season, I calculated the difference between actual strikes and expected strikes over a common denominator. A positive number means that the pitcher pitched to a more favorable strike zone. A negative number means that the pitcher pitched to a tighter strike zone. Out of those 1,322 pitcher-seasons, here’s where Hernandez’s five seasons ranked:
- 6th (2010)
- 10th (2012)
- 12th (2011)
- 50th (2008)
- 62nd (2009)
All five seasons in the top 5%. Three consecutive seasons in the top 1%. Clearly, absolutely clearly, Hernandez wasn’t throwing to the same zone as all the rest of the pitchers in baseball. This was a demonstrated skill for him, and it wasn’t about his pitch-framers.
What’s been established is that Hernandez pitched to a huge zone toward the end. We can’t say as much about the beginning or the middle, but we can try. For one thing, pitchers usually don’t just change the way that they pitch over the course of their careers, barring some kind of injury. Hernandez, probably, stayed away from hitters the whole entire time. We can also observe his historical rates of called strikes. Baseball-Reference tracks called strikes/total strikes going back to 1988. It works as a decent proxy. Hernandez had 14 straight years of being a “qualified” pitcher. He had nine top-ten finishes in the stat, and of those, eight were top-four. The worst he finished was 26th out of 133, and that was in 2011. Hernandez always got called strikes, suggesting that Hernandez always pitched a little off the plate, effectively managing to shift the whole strike zone.
People said Tom Glavine did the same thing. They use Glavine’s zone to explain his low career BABIP and dinger rate. Interestingly, Hernandez allowed a career .306 BABIP, and a little more than a dinger for every nine innings. Batters against him posted a .780 OPS. Glavine allegedly used his big zone to thrive. Hernandez used his to survive. Even with a more generous zone, Hernandez got hit, making one wonder what might’ve happened had he been forced to pitch more often over the plate.
So maybe it’s a good thing for Hernandez he didn’t come around ten years later than he did. The zone’s still not perfect, but it’s getting more reasonable every season, and Hernandez now might be given less leeway. Or, maybe not. He was still given the benefit of the doubt in his very last year, and that was two years ago. Hernandez is proof, big shiny proof, that there’s a pitcher component to pitch-framing, and sometimes it can be enormous.
The catchers didn’t make Hernandez’s zone. Hernandez made Hernandez’s zone, and most of the time he pitched within it. The catchers would set up away, and Hernandez would pitch away, and umpires are kinder when pitchers pitch to their areas. Guys who work in get more calls in. Guys who work low get more calls low. Guys who work away get more calls away, and Hernandez worked away almost exclusively. He was a guy with tremendous command, a guy who walked hitters not because he couldn’t throw strikes, but because he didn’t want to throw the most hittable strikes. Hernandez got hit, already. He didn’t want to make that any worse by moving within the black.
Livan Hernandez might be the most left-handed righty pitcher in the history of major-league baseball. He pitched in the way people figured Tom Glavine pitched. He pitched in the way people figured Jamie Moyer pitched. Livan Hernandez probably couldn’t have existed as he did by pitching within the rule-book strike zone, so he decided to make his own strike zone, and he lasted for the better part of two decades. At times he was right on the edge of getting absolutely blasted, but Hernandez was okay with life on the edge. Life anywhere else might not have been nearly so kind.
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