VIERA, Fla. - At age 35, Livan Hernandez led the Nationals' pitching staff in innings last season, throwing nearly 70 more than any other pitcher. He made eight more starts than anyone on the staff. And in a year when the Nationals shut starters down with elbow, neck, back, shoulder and hip problems, there was exactly one pitcher that stayed in the rotation all year: Hernandez.
He'll be Washington's ace again this year, making his ninth opening day start at age 36 and beginning a season where he hopes to make at least 30 starts for the 14th consecutive year. His secret is a simple one, yet it's become more uncommon the longer Hernandez has been in the game: He throws a lot of pitches.
Hernandez has stretched his career into his mid-30s by becoming something of an anomaly in the game. He's never really been on a pitch count, and threw more than 110 pitches 10 times last year, crossing the 120-pitch mark twice. In his bullpen sessions between starts, Hernandez will often throw more than 100 pitches - though most of them are at less than full speed, designed to drill his feel for his pitches more than anything else.
Still, his routine would almost be considered taboo in some baseball circles.
Empowered by specialized bullpens and informed with advanced statistics - or perhaps scrutinized by media members with access to those same statistics - teams have gradually asked starting pitchers to do less and less in the last 20 years. Six pitchers in baseball threw more than 225 innings last year; in 1990, that number was 17.
Twenty-nine pitchers did it in 1980, the year McCatty threw a career-high 221 2/3 innings for the Oakland Athletics, pitching 11 complete games. He had the fourth-most innings on the A's staff that year; he would have led the Nationals' 2010 staff by 10 innings.
"Steve McCatty will tell you he averaged 135 pitches a start and never thought a thing of it," Riggleman said. "But now, when you get around the 100 mark, we start looking at each other like, 'Should we send a guy back out there?' You feel like you're going to get accused of abuse if you pitch somebody 120 pitches."
There is some support in baseball circles for a change. Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who is now president of the Texas Rangers, has made it an organizational priority to increase the workloads of his pitchers. The Rangers rarely pull starters based on pitch counts and put their pitchers through a strenuous conditioning program in the minors. Right-hander Ryan Tatusko, who was traded from the Rangers to the Nationals last year, said the conditioning he did in Texas' system was "far and beyond anybody I've ever talked to in other organizations."
Hernandez has preached the importance of throwing more to other young pitchers, and in McCatty and Riggleman, he has a pair of veteran baseball men who are at least receptive to the idea.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with it. Sometimes, over the past 20 years, we've gotten into that, 'Pitch count, pitch count, pitch count,' " McCatty said. "Livo's never really been on one, and he can throw 140 pitches. He just believes the more he throws, the better he is."
With the advent of sabermetrics, 100 pitches has become an unofficial breaking point for many pitchers; Baseball Prospectus has even coined a stat called Pitcher Abuse Points, which suggests every time a starter throws more than 100 pitches in a game puts his arm at risk of deteriorating. But as pitch counts have gone down, injuries to pitchers seem as prevalent as ever; a 2003 USA Today survey found that one in nine major league pitchers had undergone Tommy John surgery.
Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg, perhaps the most highly-touted college prospect in history, was on a careful pitching regimen at San Diego State after Aztecs coach and Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn vowed he wouldn't let the right-hander burn out his prized arm in college. He pitched once a week in college, throwing a modest 109 innings during his final season at SDSU. The Nationals planned to cap his rookie season at 155-160 professional innings, and he never threw more than 99 pitches in any of his 12 big league starts.
His elbow still blew out last Aug. 21, and even after the Nationals' careful doting on Strasburg, some still wondered aloud whether the team had handled him correctly.
With a prospect of Strasburg's stature, the attention paid to each decision can be almost paralyzing. Yet if Ryan - or for that matter, Hernandez - had been in charge of his development, they might have suggested a different plan.
Hernandez spends a fair amount of time telling young pitchers about his approach to side work. Because his fastball rarely tops 86 mph and his repertoire is more about location and changing speeds, it's less important for Hernandez to crank up his arm during his bullpen sessions than it might be for pitchers who like to know they're firing at maximum effort. But his regimen almost has the effect of a distance runner's training plan, building a base of arm strength through volume workouts and rarely turning out full-speed pitches until it's time to compete.
"I throw more, and I feel much better," he said. 'I've told a lot of young guys, 'Don't throw less if you're a starting pitcher.' If you throw more, it's going to help you build a strong arm. If you throw less, and you go in the game and throw a lot, you could be hurt one day. I think it works for me. I throw a lot and throw more and more, my arm is much stronger."
Said McCatty: "If it was myself, and I threw 25 or 30 pitches, and I hit my spots, I was satisfied with it. Not to say he's wrong - you should probably throw more pitches than they do. But a lot of guys like that feel of being closer to 100 percent when they do it than 65 percent. And that's the way Livo does it."
Hernandez's routine has been critical to extending his career, but for it to catch on across the game, the Rangers would probably have to prove they can win with heavier workloads while keeping their pitchers healthy. A modern bullpen usually includes seven relievers, some of which are on the team to face only one or two hitters many of which throw in the mid-90s. There's not much point to sticking with a tiring starter if a club has three relievers available for an inning each of high heat or specialized matchups. And decision-makers are under so much scrutiny that many seem afraid to take the leap. Even Riggleman, while saying he believes in what the Rangers are doing, sounded content to let them succeed - or fail - with it first.
"Until we get more information and find out what the right way to go is, we'll probably take the conservative approach," he said. "But my guess is more is better, probably."
If teams like the Rangers can prove that, there may be more pitchers doing what Hernandez does. And that may give managers like Riggleman the freedom to return starters to workloads like the one McCatty had.
"I think it's going to change," Riggleman said. "I like the comments Livo's made about it."