It’s well-documented by now what the Nationals thought they were getting this spring when they signed Livan Hernandez, and why wouldn’t it be?
Everyone knows what they’re going to get from Hernandez - and goodness knows enough teams have had the opportunity to put him on their staff. He’s good for 200 innings, some of them hectic enough to get the manager reaching for the phone or a bottle of Maalox, but at the end of the year, he’ll end up having given you a chance to win more often than not.
The script on Hernandez, now in his 15th season, is well-worn. So when the Nationals brought him back on a minor-league contract for $900,000, after having hemmed and hawed all offseason about whether they wanted the veteran again, they assumed he’d follow that script, possibly fading out sometime in the summer so the team could bring in a younger, harder-throwing replacement.
But the script hasn’t worked at all. The Nationals’ planned rotation is in shambles, with their Opening Day starter at Double-A and their big free agent acquisition rehabbing after elbow surgery. And Hernandez, in the middle of a turnaround season, has no less than saved their rotation.
After his complete-game win over the Reds on Thursday, which brought his record to 7-6 and lowered his ERA to 3.12, Hernandez further laminated his status as the best pitcher on the Nationals’ staff not named Strasburg. He’s milked almost everything he can possibly get out of his stuff, starting the year with a pair of shutout outings and thrusting himself into the All-Star conversation early this year. Hernandez slipped in June, like he has in years past, but in July, he’s climbed right back to the level he was at early in the season, posting a 3.18 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 34 innings.
The keys to Hernandez’s turnaround, from being a pitcher employed by four teams in the last two seasons, are subtle, but the results have been striking. He’s throwing less fastballs (62.6 percent of his pitches) than he has the last two years, and as he’s done that, the pitch has become more effective. In fact, it’s the 15th-most valuable fastball in the National League, at 8.6 runs above average.
Throwing more curveballs (9.6 percent of pitches, his highest total since 2006) has freed up Hernandez’s fastball from being the pitch hitters are always sitting on, and it’s gotten more hitters chasing his stuff. He’s gotten hitters to offer at 28.7 percent of his pitches outside the strike zone, which is his highest total since 2001 and matches him with impressive young starters like the Phillies’ Cole Hamels and the Marlins’ Chris Volstad.
And while there’s the old question of luck with Hernandez, with his batting average on balls in play at a mere .278, some of that is because of how effective he’s been at getting weak contact on ground balls.
For the Nationals, then, the question becomes what they do with Hernandez going forward. His value has never been higher, and he could bring back a prospect or two in a trade this month. It’s not out of the question for the team to trade him and then bring him back in the offseason; they shipped him out in a deal in 2006, and re-signed him late in 2009. He’s said how much he loves pitching in Washington, and with his half-brother, Orlando Hernandez, in the system, there’s a good chance he’d return.
But the arguments for why the Nationals would keep Hernandez are just as compelling. He’s become the sage of the Nationals’ pitching staff, with Craig Stammen crediting Hernandez for a pitching lesson dispensed on the golf course and an April pep talk that helped a struggling Stammen turn in one of his best outings of the year. With Cuban pitcher Yuniesky Maya on the way to the Nationals, Hernandez’s role as a liaison could be getting even more important. He’s in the best shape he’s been in years, and has the kind of rubber arm that’s show it can take just about anything.
All those things will be worked out in the days and months ahead. What’s clear for now, once again, is that Hernandez is in the middle of a career renaissance. And he’s giving the Nationals much more than they - or anyone else - expected.