There is something about the way Livan Hernandez pitches that is almost detached from results. He does the same thing between every start, sometimes throwing around 100 pitches in the bullpen to perfect the feel of his mechanics, like a violinist drilling a complex passage of a concerto over and over. And when he pitches, he rarely alters his approach; he throws four different pitches, trying to parse the corners of the plate with each one. If hitters swing or umpires call strikes, he’ll be successful. If they don’t, he won’t.
That’s why it’s been so tough to evaluate Hernandez’s career by numbers - he’s had solid seasons, sure, and has stretched his major league career across parts of three decades after winning World Series Most Valuable Player honors as a rookie. But his way of pitching has led to years where he walks too many batters or gives up too many homers, leading to pedestrian numbers that have earned him the label of an innings eater - a brutish, almost profane term for a pitcher that falls short of describing what Hernandez does on the mound.
The reality is, Hernandez’s approach to pitching is meant to be experienced, not quantified: the 86 mph fastballs that somehow miss hitters’ bats, the breaking pitches that dart off the corners of the plate and the mischievous moment in every game where Hernandez will spring a 60 mph curveball on some unsuspecting 24-year-old hitter, who almost jumps out of his shoes swinging well in front of it.
“From his mound presence to the 50 mile per hour pitches, he’s just a great all-around athlete,” first baseman Michael Morse said.
But as difficult as it’s been to sum up Hernandez’s career in numbers, statistics - particularly those nasty ones about his ability to log innings - have kept getting him jobs in the major leagues. In an era of Tommy John surgeries, pitch counts and relief specialists, Hernandez is the rare pitcher who maintains. He finds work because he’s the least of any manager or trainer’s worries; he’s never gone on the disabled list, never missed a start and never passed up an opportunity to take the ball when he’s needed, even if it’s on short rest.
On Wednesday, Hernandez put together a masterpiece with all the elements that make him so unique; he faced 29 batters in nine innings, striking out twice as many (six) as he put on base (three) with his usual complement of sweeping, looping pitches. The way it will be remembered, though, is for a milestone, one that has to do more with longevity than skill: Hernandez pitched his 50th career complete game in the Nationals’ 10-0 win over the Cardinals.
“I feel really good,” Hernandez said. “A number’s a number. Fifty complete games, I feel really good with that. It’s not easy to have a lot of complete games now. The way I pitch, it’s difficult for me. I’m a contact pitcher, so I’ve got to have a game like this. I’m very happy this is No. 50. It’s not easy.”
Of the active pitchers in baseball, only Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay has more complete games than Hernandez, with 62. The next two pitchers, Bartolo Colon and Tim Wakefield, are both older than Hernandez, and they’re 18 behind him. He’s made a career of defying convention, and he continues to find new life later in his career.
“As I’m getting old, I’ve got more energy, I think,” Hernandez said.
The reason the Nationals brought him back at the start of last season was to be an innings-eater - there’s that phrase again - but instead, Hernandez turned into an ace, leading the team in innings, ERA and strikeouts, and finishing second in wins. He had his best season in six years, and he’s done most of the same things this season, posting a 3.77 ERA through his first 15 starts after finishing with a 3.66 mark last year.
His run support hasn’t been there, and he hasn’t been quite as lucky with fly balls, giving up homers on 7.4 percent of them instead of a minuscule 5.8 percent last year. But everything else has been just about the same.
And as he finished one of the best starts of his career on Wednesday night, shutting down a first-place team with his usual brand of voodoo, Hernandez’s lasting impression, once again, was a number.
“It tells you what kind of workhorse he is,” Morse said. “This guy could pitch forever, it seems like.”