When I look at the league leaders online or in the newspaper (yeah, they still exist) I see what fans see every year during April, a surprising collection of names that usually disappear by the time school lets out. Scott Podsednik and Pudge Rodriguez hitting .449? And even though I know it’s early and things will begin to level out and make sense within a few weeks, I still can’t help but be shocked by this line, ERA: 1. Hernandez, WSH, 0.75. What!?
That’s Livan Hernandez, pitching for his fifth team since 2006, back with Washington for a second go-round. He’s 2-1 and is incredibly getting hitters out consistently. He’s averaging eight innings per start and has thrown a complete game shutout already. Allow me to channel my inner John McEnroe; You cannot be serious! Isn’t this the same guy who allowed approximately six hits per inning over the last several years? Isn’t he the guy who throws a mid-80s fastball and an assortment of junk similar to the guys I see in city leagues across the metro Kansas City area?
It’s true, 35 year old Livan Hernandez has apparently found the fountain of youth and is enjoying a start that no one could have predicted. Over his last four seasons, Hernandez has essentially been a glorified batting practice pitcher, but has somehow guiled and gutted his way into double digit wins three times, though he’s posted double digit losses all four years and compiled a 46-47 overall record. His batting average against over that time is stunning, .288, .308, .342, and .308 from 2006-2009. His ERA is a robust 5.28 over that time, but considering the way hitters have been teeing off on him it’s surprising it’s not worse.
So what’s the key to his turnaround this year? Has he suddenly regained his fastball or retooled his repertoire? Has he begun a top secret HGH regimen? Is it really Stephen Strasburg in disguise? I believe, in fact, the answer is much more mundane than any of those possibilities. It’s just plain dumb luck.
Hernandez is dominating opposing hitters with an unreal .159 batting average against, third best in all of baseball. His WHIP is a stellar 0.83, a shade over half of his career average. However, a closer look shows that he also has the third best BABIP in Major League Baseball with a ridiculous .180, which means that eventually those atom balls that have been finding gloves will turn into bleeders and gorks that find holes. Before long, opposing hitters will start “hitting ’em where they ain’t,” and feasting upon Livan’s fat fastballs as they have for much of the past decade.
Now usually I’d say that three straight starts like Livan has had is a trend and not a fluke, and he has faced three legitimate teams, including a shutout against the potent Brewers lineup that just napalmed the Pirates staff this week. However, with the combination of his history and the good fortune that he’s had so far, I can’t imagine this charade lasting much longer. Only thrice in fourteen full seasons has he had fewer hits allowed than innings pitched and I expect things to return to normalcy soon.
He usually doesn’t hurt himself with walks, but with a team behind him that’s still building and a pedestrian offense, Livan should enjoy this month while he can. I expect the rest of the summer will be much like the last several have been and Livan will find himself running to back up bases as opposing hitters fight at the bat rack for a chance to face him.