Livan Hernandez officially retires, ending compelling 17-year career
Livan Hernandez, who is in Nationals camp as a spring training instructor and last pitched in the major leagues in 2012, announced on Wednesday that he will officially retire this spring. His doing so will end what was a very interesting 17-year career that saw Hernandez win 178 games, pitch in two World Series, and have an under-appreciated, and at times accidental, impact on the game.
Born in Villa Clara, Cuba, Hernandez began his professional baseball career as a member of the Cuban national team, but defected to the Dominican Republic in 1995 at the age of 20 (though, as with his half-brother Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, there has been much doubt cast over his official birth year of 1975). Hernandez quickly became the subject of a bidding war that yielded a four-year, $4.5 million contract with the Florida Marlins. His defection and contract proved to be a flashpoint that accelerated the flow of talent from Cuba to the major leagues and gave birth to the habit of Cuban players defecting to countries outside of the purview of the Rule 4 draft, thus allowing them to sell themselves to major league teams as a free agent, a loophole exploited by his then-agent, Joe Cubas.
Hernandez made his major league debut in September 1996 with a single relief appearance, but when he returned to the major leagues for good the following June, he was a sensation. In his first dozen starts after the All-Star break, Hernandez went 7-2 with a 2.38 ERA and established himself as an important part of the Florida rotation as the Marlins, in just their fifth season, claimed the National League wild card. He would finish second in the Rookie of the Year voting despite making just 17 starts on the season. Hernandez didn't start in the Division Series as the Marlins swept the Giants, but he did get the ball in Game Five of the National League Championship Series against the Braves and, in his first playoff start, threw a complete game in which he held the defending league champions to one run on three hits and struck out an NLCS-record 15 batters.
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That game proved to be a flashpoint as well, as home plate umpire Eric Gregg's enormous strike zone (just look at the outside pitches called strikes to the lefties in the video above) would motivate MLB to crack down on the umpire's union in 1999 and implement QuesTec's Umpire Information System to evaluate strike-zone calls in 2001.
Hernandez picked up two more wins in the World Series and was named the Series' Most Valuable Player (despite a 5.27 ERA in those two starts) as the Marlins went on to win their first championship. However, his first full major league season proved to be a disappointment, as his ERA inflated to 4.72, possibly due to overuse. Hernandez threw 143 pitches in his 15-strikeout game and 142 pitches in his second World Series start. In 1998, he made 13 starts in which he threw 130 or more pitches, including four games of 140 or more pitches, two of which saw him surpass 150. His high of 153 pitches that season has not been surpassed since. After a similar performance in early 1999, Hernandez was dealt to the Giants at the trading deadline.
Livan's star had been eclipsed by Orlando's by then, but the younger brother reinvented himself in San Francisco as a rubber-armed junkballer. Gone was the mid-90s fastball, but Hernandez steadfastly refused to collapse under heavy workloads in the new century, averaging 236 innings for the Giants, Expos and Nationals from 2000 to 2005, completing a major league-leading 31 games over that span, and posting a solid 105 ERA+ along the way despite weak peripherals. His disastrous performance as the Giants' Game 7 starter was the final nail in San Francisco's coffin in the 2002 World Series, but after being dealt to Montreal at the end of spring training the following year, he led the National League in innings pitched in 2003 and the majors in 2004 and 2005, posting a 3.60 ERA (121 ERA+) over those three seasons and making the All-Star team in the latter two. Hernandez also emerged as one of the better hitting pitchers in baseball, hitting .245/.254/.335 in 608 at-bats from 1999 to 2005 with seven home runs, ranking third in OPS+ among pitchers with at least 150 plate appearances over that span (behind Mike Hampton and Dontrelle Willis) and winning the Silver Slugger in 2004.
On Apr. 4, 2005, he threw the first pitch in Washington Nationals history (then proceeded to be lit up by the Phillies for seven runs in 4 2/3 innings), and on June 6 of that year, he threw 150 pitches in a complete game against the Marlins, making him the last pitcher to have reached that total (only two other pitchers have reached 140 pitches since, those being Edwin Jackson and Tim Lincecum in the process of throwing their no-hitters).
Hernandez spent the final seven years of his major league career as a rubber-arm for rent, suiting up for the Diamondbacks, Twins, Rockies, Mets, returning to the Nationals, and finishing up with a year in relief split between the Braves and Brewers. Hernandez was well below average in all but one of those seasons, his fastball sitting in the low-80s and his strikeout rate dipping below 5.0 per nine innings, but he continued to eat innings, averaging 195 frames in his final six years as a starter and working 67 1/3 in relief in 2012. His reliability and durability allowed him to rack up 178 wins, the fourth most by a Cuban-born pitcher and most ever by a pitcher who defected from Cuba after Fidel Castro's revolution. A below-average pitcher on his career (95 ERA+), Hernandez is unlikely to draw more than a token Hall of Fame vote, nor should he, but his was absolutely a career worth remembering.