Pitching at the major league level isn’t much different from other lines of work. You either adapt or … you find a card show to sign autographs at. Livan Hernandez, the Nationals’ resident rubber arm, reached that crossroads in 2003, when he was coming off his second straight losing season for a Giants team that had just gone to the World Series. Why was the rest of the rotation – Russ Ortiz, Kirk Rueter et al. — racking up wins and he wasn’t?
In training camp, veteran pitching coach Ron Perranoski decided it was time Hernandez traded in his slider for a sinker. And not just any sinker, either. The sinker Orel Hershiser had spent his career bamboozling batters with. (During the 1988 Series, an A’s coach described it to Sports Illustrated thusly: “He gets to two strikes and his ball defies any law of physics. It’s got to be a spitter.”)
The early returns weren’t encouraging. Hernandez gripped the ball the way Perranoski told him to – with his middle finger raised, not even touching the right seam – but after a few wayward attempts he turned to his teacher and said, “I can’t throw it. The ball’s [squirting] out of my hand.”
Hernandez told that story Friday afternoon while sitting in front of his locker at Space Coast Stadium. Here it is eight years later, and the pitch he was ready to ditch has become his staple, something he might dial up “98 times out of 100” in some games, he said. “The other two would be four-seamers.”
Which is why, at 36 (or so), he’s still out there chucking – while other hurlers fall by the wayside, unable to reinvent themselves. The Young Livan, the Rookie of the Year/World Series MVP Livan, could hit 97 mph on the radar gun; the Old Livan has to reach back to hit 90. No matter. He just keeps feeding batters that nasty 85 mph sinker. “I gotta live with what I have,” he said.
Spoken like a true survivor. Hernandez’ evolution – and recent renaissance – is a wondrous thing. Heck, two years ago, the Mets flat-out released him, convinced that even his Hershiser Special couldn’t save him anymore. So he returned to the Nats and, last season, put up some of his best numbers in a while (211.2 innings, 3.66 ERA, 1.323 WHIP).
He also did a better job of keeping the ball in the park. Livan isn’t in Bert Blyleven’s class in the dinger department, but he’s given up his fair share – 331 all told. In 2010, though, he allowed just one every 13.1 innings, the best ratio of his career for a full season.
“It’s all about making adjustments,” he said. “Look at Bartolo Colon. He lowered the velocity on his sinker, got it to break more and won the Cy Young [in 2005 with the Angels]. A lot of pitchers change over the years. You realize you’re not 25 anymore.”
When he first broke into the bigs, for instance, Hernandez loved to throw his curveball. It was a product of growing up in Cuba, where aluminum bats were allowed at the highest levels. “Professional hitters with aluminum bats,” as he put it, are a scary proposition. So, out of self-preservation, he resorted to his bender a lot.
“I remember one time in the major leagues I threw so many breaking balls that in the next game the manager only let me throw 10,” he said. “He told me, `It’s not good for you.’”
Now Hernandez relies more on his change-up than his curve, just as he substituted a sinker for a slider. As an added bonus, the two pitches are easier on the arm – and more conducive to longevity. The latter, of course, helps him get more ground balls. It also enables him to “get people out faster than I used to” and, as a result, to go deeper into games.
He probably wouldn’t be here, though, if a coach hadn’t opened him up to other possibilities, hadn’t shown him there could be Life After the Slider. In the years since, Hernandez has taken the message to heart – and remade himself into the whatever-it-takes pitcher he is today. It’s enough to make you wonder whether he might be capable of one last incarnation: Livan Hernandez, knuckleballer.