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Posted at 7:35 AM ET, 02/17/2011

Can Livan Hernandez do it again?

By Adam Kilgore
Morning brushback

It's easy to forget now, after he established himself as a focal part of their team, but Livan Hernandez was not officially part of the Nationals' opening day roster last year. Yesterday, he hoped President Obama would throw out the first pitch at Nationals Park again this season. Last year, Hernandez was in Miami, watching on television.

The reason - again, it's easy to forget now - is that Hernandez seemed not like a core piece of the Nationals, but more like a dispensable stopgap until Stephen Strasburg made his debut. He was released in both the middle of 2008 and 2009 and pitched for four different teams. His ERA over those two years was 5.74, the highest in the majors by nearly half a run. He seemed like a player on his way out.

He was not. Last year, of course, Hernandez was remarkable. He did not miss a single start, and 22 of his 33 starts counted as quality starts. Twelve National League starters had more. This year, it looks like the Nationals are going to trust him to take the ball on opening day. He is, partly by default but also based on his performance, their ace.

Will he live up to the designation? First of all, he's 36 years old. But he doesn't rely on sheer power, which is more likely to fade with age than guile, which is Hernandez's weapon of choice. And he looks to be in good shape, and he says he feels great. "I feel the same as last year. I feel like everything's ready to go," Hernandez said. "I can do whatever I want on the mound with the knee; everything's 100 percent."

livo leg kick.jpg

The question, then, becomes, how good really was Hernandez last year? There is this great stat called xFIP that a lot of smart baseball analysts believe is the best single stat to measure a pitcher's performance. It aims to predict, through a formula, the way a pitcher performed independent of his fielders and with a normalized home run rate. It stands for what an ERA theoretically should have been in everything broke even for him. It is theory, of course, but plenty of smart people believe in it.

So, anyway, back to Hernandez. Beginning with xFIP, there were ample statistics that would tell you Hernandez received good fortune last season, a factor of luck he will be hard-pressed to repeat. His ERA last year was 3.66, 26th out of 45 qualifying starters in the National League. His xFIP was 4.76, which ranked 41st. Hernandez had a drastic improvement on the surface, but his underlying performance seemed similar to 2008 and 2009, when his xFIP was 4.90 and 4.78, respectively.

In May of last year, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs.com, a leading analytical web site, wrote a piece on Hernandez titled, "The Luckiest Man Alive." Things kept going his way. He gave up loads of fly balls - his 39.3-percent groundball rate was sixth-lowest in the NL - but he gave up just 64 extra-base hits, which was 18th among qualifying pitchers. Only 5.8 percent of his flyballs turned into home runs, sixth-best in the majors.

Now, it may not be completely proper to measure Hernandez with those standards. There is, as you know, some magic to the way Hernandez pitches. He confuses hitters with 60-mph curves and high-80s fastballs on the corners. He surrenders plenty of contact, but it is not the kind that produces screaming line drives. He seems to possess the ability to deaden the bat. When the snake charmer doesn't get bit, no one calls it luck.

The numbers, though, are what they are. Hernandez had a great year last season. He could certainly have another great year this season. The Nationals are counting on it. I'm not really arguing one way or another here. I am trying to present a point: If Hernandez does not have another great year, the underlying numbers served as a warning.

FROM THE POST

After a rotten 2010, Ross Detwiler is feeling comfortable on the mound again.

Dave Sheinin was in Jupiter -- town, not planet -- to report on Albertageddon.

Amy Shipley has the fascinating, complicated story of Garrett Wittels, a Florida International shortstop who will pursue the NCAA's all-time hitting streak while facing charges of rape.

By Adam Kilgore  | February 17, 2011; 7:35 AM ET
Categories:  Morning brushback  
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Next: Pitchers and catchers set to work out today

Comments

Luck is the residue of design.

Posted by: joemktg1 | February 17, 2011 7:44 AM | Report abuse

Good article on Detwiler. It would be great if, this time next year, everyone is talking Stras, Zimm, Detwiler as the cornerstones of a great pitching staff.

Posted by: derwink | February 17, 2011 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Hardcore fans have read dozens of pieces like this on Hernandez. This is a fresh look with good context, and is a nice piece of writing (e.g. snake charmers).

On the content, Livo is like Lannan, you either believe that "luck" is a skill, or you don't. I'm a believer.

Posted by: natinbeantown | February 17, 2011 8:37 AM | Report abuse

Whether Livan's 2010 performance was more luck or skill driven is debatable, but at his very best Livan merely gives the club a chance to win. He's an innings eater aand he does a good job staying out of big innings. He's not a guy who can shut down the other club start after start.

Every other club in the NL East has at least one guy (some have several) who can consistently dominate -- the Nats not having a guy like that is the glaring flaw on the roster. If the Nats could somehow add something near an Ace, they'd have at least a puncher's chance to compete -- without one, it is yet another year thrown to the dogs.

Posted by: dfh21 | February 17, 2011 8:37 AM | Report abuse

Livan is a one-of-a-kind case that I believe defies xFIP. Looking at his stats from last year compared to previous years, the stats that jump out are his rate of fly balls (he have up a ton) but they stayed in the park. xFIP will tell you that is luck. It says that while he only had a home run rate of 5.8%, it should have been closer to 10% and thus he wasn't really as good as it looked. However, as those of know who watch him on a regular basis, Livo was able to induce a lot of weak contact that resulted in pop-ups or lazy fly balls. His BABIP was pretty low, but that's because poorly hit ground balls have a better chance of slipping thru than poorly hit fly balls.

This season will be the test to see if Livo has made a stylist change that results in poorly hit fly balls (this assumes his high HR rates in his past were due to injury or inexperience) or if he truly is the luckiest man alive and we see a HR rate closer to his career norms.

Let's hope for the former.

Posted by: sec307 | February 17, 2011 8:44 AM | Report abuse

Livo is the "new" Jamie Moyer. Nothing wrong with having a guy like that on the staff.

Posted by: shanks1 | February 17, 2011 8:44 AM | Report abuse

Livan's career is mostly weak seasons, with a few pretty good to very good ones sprikled in here and there. He's never had back-to-back winning seasons, and last year was his first sub-4.90 ERA campaign since 2006. Some ace. I say this year he reverts to type and has an ERA of at least 4.50.

Posted by: Fairfax6 | February 17, 2011 9:07 AM | Report abuse

xFIP like lots of stats in baseball and other fields, is aggregated from lots of information and is an average. One individual is a very small sample, and the fact that Livo's not average makes sense to me. I'm not (too) worried.

The other factor with Livo is that when he's not on, he can be terrible. So there will be some games that are really bad that drive up his numbers, but don't predict the outcome of his next start.

Posted by: utec | February 17, 2011 9:16 AM | Report abuse

Every team needs a Livo!

Posted by: markfd | February 17, 2011 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Yes, he can.

Posted by: whatsaNATaU | February 17, 2011 9:46 AM | Report abuse

It's great to have two stories up this early in the morning. Keep 'em coming. FYI, the link to Amy Shipley's piece isn't right; it takes you to the Albert Pujols' article.

Posted by: Natsgal | February 17, 2011 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Adam K

The Amy Shipley story is redirecting to Albertageddon. Can you fix this please?

Posted by: hansenjo | February 17, 2011 10:12 AM | Report abuse

So the Nats opening day starter is a guy who every other MLB team passed on last season. Basically, like normal, the Nats are a collection of everyone else's scraps. So much for the great minor league system and all the much-hyped prospects.

Sixth year of baseball in DC and their arguably best pitcher is a retread that nobody wanted and arguably had a very lucky season last time out.

Looks like another 90-loss season. So much for steady improvement.

Posted by: jollyroger2 | February 17, 2011 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Livo embodies what Riggleman was talking about (lamenting?) yesterday - the Nationals have a lot of pitchers that should be third (or arguably 4th) starters on a solid team. They can be expected to keep you close but they don't create an expectation of winning. The Nationals have two pitchers on their 40 man roster who have the potential to be the top of the rotation starter. One isn't going to be back until September at the earliest. The other is Jordan Zimmermann. It will be fun to watch this season to see how JZ does.

Best case scenario is that Livo, JZ, Lannan, Marquis and Gorzelanny start off in the rotation. Marquis pitches well enough to get flipped in June or July for prospects and Livo moves into the Bautista long man/spot starter role. This opens room for Maya and Detwiler to move into the rotation after establishing themselves in ST and in AAA. As JZ and Gorzelanny approach innings limits, Wang and Strasburg come back from injury. Add dreams of glory!

Posted by: JCCfromDC | February 17, 2011 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.
-TJ

Posted by: Kavorka | February 17, 2011 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Anyone who actually played the game knows that many of the so-called advanced metrics are a bunch of nonsense. There is method to the madness of allowing contact. The idea is to make someone hit your pitch and not be able to time you effectively. This will result in a lot of balls being put in play but not many being stung. That is why Livan appears to be "lucky." There is more to this game than just raw power and numbers.

Posted by: truke | February 17, 2011 1:12 PM | Report abuse

>>Sixth year of baseball in DC and their arguably best pitcher is a retread that nobody wanted and arguably had a very lucky season last time out.

Looks like another 90-loss season. So much for steady improvement.

Posted by: jollyroger2

Yeah Pants is a real pissah - he doesn't even have enough sense to put Jordan Zimmerman in as a #1. Of course, HE'S only thrown 140 innings once and they're talking about limiting his innings this year.

100 losses. Suck on it and like it.

Posted by: Brue | February 17, 2011 1:20 PM | Report abuse

>>The idea is to make someone hit your pitch and not be able to time you effectively. This will result in a lot of balls being put in play but not many being stung. That is why Livan appears to be "lucky." There is more to this game than just raw power and numbers.

Posted by: truke

What they're getting at is that he gives up a lot of fly balls and he's not a fastball pitcher. Junk ballers generally have the batters hit the top half of the ball because it's descending, hence more grounders, like say, Lannan. If you're an offspeed pitcher, and you get a lot of fly balls, it means the hitters are squaring up on it better, plus it means the pitches are up in the zone. Ever heard the term 'hanging sliders go a long way'?

Posted by: Brue | February 17, 2011 1:55 PM | Report abuse

>>The idea is to make someone hit your pitch and not be able to time you effectively. This will result in a lot of balls being put in play but not many being stung. That is why Livan appears to be "lucky." There is more to this game than just raw power and numbers.

Posted by: truke

What they're getting at is that he gives up a lot of fly balls and he's not a fastball pitcher. Junk ballers generally have the batters hit the top half of the ball because it's descending, hence more grounders, like say, Lannan. If you're an offspeed pitcher, and you get a lot of fly balls, it means the hitters are squaring up on it better, plus it means the pitches are up in the zone. Ever heard the term 'hanging sliders go a long way'?

Posted by: Brue | February 17, 2011 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Livan gets people arguing back and forth but here is a stat that is not arguable. Of active major league pitchers he ranks 3rd in Wins! He has done something right to reach that. Do I think he is a legitimate #1, of course not, but he does win and that brings any team some comfort. He also saves the bullpen on days he pitches and he is a great teammate. Many more positives than negatives
After that first start its rare that each team's #1 face each other anyway.

Can't wait to see us approach 80 wins this year and silence the negativity. Of course what will happen then is that people will find something else to gripe about. Guess they could all go visit Redskin Insiders

Go Nats

Posted by: sjm3091 | February 17, 2011 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Livan gets people arguing back and forth but here is a stat that is not arguable. Of active major league pitchers he ranks 3rd in Wins! He has done something right to reach that. Do I think he is a legitimate #1, of course not, but he does win and that brings any team some comfort. He also saves the bullpen on days he pitches and he is a great teammate. Many more positives than negatives
After that first start its rare that each team's #1 face each other anyway.

Can't wait to see us approach 80 wins this year and silence the negativity. Of course what will happen then is that people will find something else to gripe about. Guess they could all go visit Redskin Insiders

Go Nats

Posted by: sjm3091 | February 17, 2011 6:37 PM | Report abuse

"Luck" is where preparation meets opportunity.

I have a stat called xFLIP, which is defined as how many times I want to flip the bird at one of our alleged starting pitchers during their 5 inning starts..."x" being the average number of finger birds flipped per game over the course of a season.

Livo is a zero x. He never fails to entertain. And when you are a bottom dweller, a man's entertainment value is everything. By comparison, The Donk carried a 3.5 xFLIP.

Go Livo. You are a snake charmer at heart.

Posted by: howjensen | February 17, 2011 7:30 PM | Report abuse

BTW, jollyroger2...we are starting our 7th season of baseball in 2011. That's 7th, not 6th. 2005 was Season 1, not Season 0.

Pirates always sucked at math.

Posted by: howjensen | February 17, 2011 7:38 PM | Report abuse

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