Livan Hernandez struggled against the Mets on Sunday, giving up six runs on eight hits over 5 1/3 innings. As he exited the field in the top of the sixth, his 2011 season had officially come to an end.
Hernandez isn’t injured. He isn’t on a strict innings limit either. The Nationals simply decided to shut Hernandez down for the season’s final month. Removing him from the rotation enables the team to test out various youngsters in preparation for next season. Livan didn’t put up a fight. He understood the decision and accepted it, and will embrace his new role as mentor and de facto second pitching coach.
This type of decision isn’t made every day, especially with a pitcher still as productive as Hernandez. Then again, Hernandez isn’t your every day type of pitcher, and this story will only add to his legend as one of the best characters and people in the game.
Though he tossed a clunker on Sunday, Hernandez still put together a productive season. In just five months he pitched to a league average 2 WAR while posting decent peripherals. With a 5.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and 42 percent groundball rate, Hernandez finished his 2011 campaign with a 3.95 FIP and 4.32 SIERA. Over 175 1/3 innings, and signed for just $1 million, that is extremely cost-effective.
Never overly expensive and always hovering around the league average pretty much sums up Livan’s career. Durability was his calling card, since his rubber arm enabled him to throw around 200 frames every season. Even in his below average seasons, being available to soak up innings added to his value. Doing so while signed to team-friendly contracts was even more of a value-add.
Case in point: Hernandez threw more innings than anyone else from 2000-11 — it wasn’t even close either, as his 2588 1/3 was over 100 innings more than Javier Vazquez’s 2482 — and he never made more than $8 million in a single season. Not that he was ever a legitimate candidate for the Cy Young Award or anything like that, but 200+ innings with a floor of 1.5 WAR would seemingly merit at least one season with an eight figure salary.
He was always hittable and lacked top-notch stuff, but understood his limitations and smartly broke down the opposition. While it’s laughable to picture Hernandez teaching Stephen Strasburg how to throw 84-mph slop, it’s tough to imagine many pitchers better suited to teach these young arms. After all, you don’t tally 36 WAR on the mound, over 15 seasons and with subpar stuff, without having plenty of pitching know-how. For $1 million this season, the Nationals got 175+ league average innings and a second pitching coach. Not a bad investment at all.
But every metric mentioned so far deals with Hernandez’s pitching. With 15 seasons as our evidence, it’s safe to say that his hitting skills are legitimate, and should not be overlooked when valuing his work. He has a career .222/.231/.296 line — a .231 wOBA — which fares extremely well against pitchers as a whole.
Across pitchers with 250+ plate appearances since 2000, only Carlos Zambrano has outproduced Livan offensively: Big Z has 8.3 WAR to his name while Hernandez has tallied 7.6 WAR at the plate and on the bases.
It’s an underrated aspect of valuing pitchers. For most, 25-50 trips to the dish represents a small sample lacking predictive value, so it’s ignored. Livan has always been above replacement level for pitchers at the plate, and while 1108 plate appearances is still a small sample, nobody will argue that his hitting is a 15-year fluke. For pitchers like Livan and Zambrano, their value increases by an entire win or more in certain seasons, which is too often overlooked when discussing their value to a team.
Look no further than Livan’s 2001 season for proof: he gave the Giants 2.5 WAR on the mound, but had a .294 wOBA that, over 85 plate appearances, was worth 1.3 WAR. It’s easy to say he was a 2.5 WAR pitcher that season, but he wasn’t. He was much closer to 4 WAR player.
Livan may not be ready to retire despite his September shutdown. He wants to pitch next season and prefers the Nationals. Though he would need to start for any other suitor, he mentioned that middle relief would be an option strictly given to the Nats.
For $1-2 million, a Hernandez capable of pitching in relief, making the occasional start, and continuing to mentor the youngsters is one of the most sound investments the Nationals can make this off-season.