Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The (not so) old man can pitch

Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Livan Hernandez has shown enough this spring to earn a rotation spot.
TAMPA -- Livan Hernandez celebrated his 35th birthday last month, and while there are certainly plenty of skeptics out there who will never believe it, the right-hander insists his age is accurate. He even offered reporters $1 million tonight if we could prove he's older than his official bio states.

The guy was laughing through the whole exchange, so I don't think he was serious about the offer. But he was serious about his age. He also believes he can pitch in the major leagues for quite a bit longer.

"A lot of years," he said. "Five more? I feel good. Jamie Moyer's 46. I'm 35 now."

If Hernandez can keep pitching the way he did tonight -- holding the Yankees' "A" lineup to one run and three hits in five innings -- he'll remain a valuable, major-league hurler for years to come. Sure, he's going to have rough nights along the way, usually once every five starts or so. But the other four times out, he's going to give his team a chance to win, a fact he's proven time and again throughout a career that began in earnest in 1997 with the Marlins.

"When you put him out there, you put him out there with confidence," manager Jim Riggleman said. "You don't put him out there thinking he's going to break down. Some guys, maximum-effort guys, you worry that they're going to hurt themselves. But that's really not the thought process with Livan."

Hernandez takes a lot of abuse, about his weight, about his lack of velocity, about his age. But let's get one thing straight: The guy is a fantastic athlete. Not just a pitcher. An athlete. He's been voted one of baseball's best golfers. He grew up in Cuba as a top soccer player. And over the winter, he picked up another sport: racquetball.

Encouraged by a friend in Miami to take up the sport, Hernandez found himself almost every morning this winter at a local fitness center playing against a bunch of regular Joes who have idolized the pitcher since he first arrived from Cuba 13 years ago.

"I do it to work out," he said. "It's good for the cardio. I started liking it and playing with the guys a lot."

Here's the kicker: Hernandez didn't play against contemporaries. He played against 60-year-olds. Good 60-year-olds.

"One guy there beat me like 11 times," he said. "I never beat him. He's good."

OK, so it's a bit of an unconventional method for preparing to pitch in the major leagues. But Livan Hernandez has always been an unconventional guy, so really, should we be surprised?

We also shouldn't be surprised that he's pitched well this spring. His body is healthy after a couple of injury-plagued seasons, he's throwing with more velocity (he hit 86 mph several times tonight) and he's still got more stamina than anyone in the game. You know how many pitches Hernandez threw in the bullpen warming up before tonight's game? Eighty-five. Then he went out and threw 74 in the game. And if Riggleman had let him go the distance, he would have.

"I feel strong," he said. "Very good."

The conventional wisdom when the Nationals signed Hernandez to a minor-league contract after camp opened was that he was merely an insurance policy in case some of the organization's younger pitchers weren't ready for prime time. But it's become obvious that's not the case. By the time the Nats decide to finalize their rotation -- perhaps by the end of the weekend -- it's a safe bet Hernandez will be in the mix. Not because other guys failed. But because he earned it.

"He can win it on his own merits," general manager Mike Rizzo said before tonight's game. "He's a proven 200-inning guy. We all know what he brings to the table. He's an innings-eater. He had a lot of quality starts for us at the end of last season. And he's a fine first-half pitcher."

That last statement is a key point. The Nats right now need a quality starter for the season's first couple of months, before Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang arrive. Hernandez fits that bill, the perfect place-holder.

If he's pitching lights-out at that point? They'll find a way to keep him (or find another team interested in his services). Who wouldn't want a reliable, 35-year-old right-hander who will give you a guaranteed 200 innings every season and more often than not give your team a chance to win?

And unless you can prove otherwise (and make $1 million in the process), yes, he really is 35.


joNAThan said...

Good read Mark..this is the kind of stuff I like...thanks sir!

Nervous Nats Fan said...

It's ok, you can admit it if you immediately went back to your computer and started looking up private investigators in Cuba. For $1 million, I would.

Bas said...

What was his velocity in the past as opposed to 86mph?

Anonymous said...

WTF? You claim it's his 35th birthday !?!
Ha! Cuban birth records are as sketchy as Dom.Rep.'s "Smiley" birth records. If I was a betting man I'd bet the Livo dude is at least 45 years. Maybe more. what: God Bless him--long live the Old Man!
He's been a great Nats team mate and a great baseball story. I'm so happy to be a Nats fan while he's still an active pitcher. He might never go to Cooperstown, but he's still an All-Time-Great!!!

Anonymous said...

Is Livan the first "crafty righthander"?

natsfan1a said...

Riiight, he's 35 (wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more, say no more).

Seriously, though, another great piece. Love the racquetball angle. Like I said before, I can't help myself - I love the guy!

Anonymous said...

Who gives two cents how old he is!? Who care what his waistline is!? How many people on this board can pitch better than Livan raise your hands!!!! Livan is more than just an innings eater he is a positive influence in the clubhouse. I would take 5 Livans over a lot of the guys who have found their way to the mound for the Nats since 2005.

Great article Mark!!

Jim Webster said...

On April 14, at 7:06 p.m., it will be time to remove whatever caps we may then be wearing (though the team be in Philly) to recognize the 5th anniversary of Livan's first start for the Nats -- opening night at RFK and the return of baseball -- when he pitched into the 9th and put the first curly "W" in the books. Not a trivial event for any baseball fan. He and Guz are the only ones left from that night. Great post, Mark.

Anonymous said...

I love Livan. I thought he was a bit younger than 35. He only looks around 29 or 30.

"Big slow curve from Livan.....swing and a miss, he got em!"

alm1000 said...

Livo Livo Livo!
Great read Mark.

I also love the guy. Great memories from opening night in 05 and the whole first season. That big picture of him as you rounded the corner from the subway at RFK. Tossing his hat, etc. to the crowd when Frank took him out before the end of the game. Great stuff.

15 wins for Livo and more than that for the Nats this year in games he pitches in.


Steve M. said...

Can he do that consistently? Nice watch on MASN as I felt I was eating my words of earlier yesterday when I figured he was being written in the rotation based on reputation of a few years ago. His in-game interview on MASN was good as it gives you some hope that maybe he could win a bunch of games. Heck, the Nats deserve some lucky good breaks.

That was impressive.

BTW, do you think Fidel Castro would hand over to us his real birth records for a box of aged Cohibas? A $1 million payday right now sounds good!

Steve M. said...

Mark - What was that pitch he was throwing to the lefties that looked like an inside pitch that then twisted back over the inside corner?

I think it was Bob Carpenter who said it was a fastball with movement. Whatever it was, he had his mojo going last night!

Doc said...

Another great bio-article MarkMeister! I see a collection of them turning into a sports book. Livo proves, what more pitching coaches are teaching--location is the more important variable in a pitcher's repetoire---pay attention Greg Olsen. Livo's got the other two variables down too.

Brian R. said...

I would say that he should lead a Nationals racquetball tournament, but I don't want all the other guys getting injured!

Mark Zuckerman said...

Steve M.: I believe that pitch you're referring to is Livan's sinker, which against a left-handed hitter would start out inside and then dart back down and over the inside corner of the plate. Similar to the pitch Greg Maddux made famous.

cadeck13 said...

Great read, love this kind of story! I really like Livo too, loved seeing him at RFK standing in the on deck circle talking to fans! Not only can he pitch and eat innings, but he fields really well and bats well too! I remember one game where Frank put him in the game as a pinch hitter and Livo was all smiles about it and if memory serves me correctly, I think he got a hit (could be wishful thinking on my part).
Keep up the great work Mark and please know that the sentiment of Anonymous 9:44pm last night is not the sentiment of the rest of us! I agree with natsfan1a and I love this blog and what you give us.

Doc said...

Mark, I was hoping to find out more about 'snake oil' and cigars, with Livo. Oh, I forgot, that was Luis Tiant! I guess times have changed. Still the way that ball goes out and down to lefthanders.......

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