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June 20, 2012

Punk Hits

League Average, the Long Way 'Round

by Ian Miller

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On Friday, June 15, the Braves released Livan Hernandez. Although Hernandez picked up a save in May—the first of his 17-year career—the Braves thought his roster spot could be better used by Kris Medlen. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was quoted as saying, “There may be some other teams looking for a veteran guy, and I hope so. He still wants to pitch.”

While not impossible, it seems unlikely that a team will take a flyer on Livan at this stage. In the event that we’ve seen the last of Livan pitching in MLB, what follows is my eulogy for his big-league career. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was always entertaining.

***

A Baseball Prospectus membership grants us access to many amazing things. I don’t think I could pick a favorite aspect of the site, but, if pressed, I might choose the BP Annual player comments on the player cards. They’re a great way to get insight into a player’s career, to see how his stock has risen and fallen over the years. They’re not a perfect survey or anything—they comprise the opinions of a few (admittedly very smart and knowledgeable) people about a player at the beginning of each season—but they can be very enlightening.

In the case of Livan Hernandez, the player comments are a crazy thrill-ride of hilarity. I just read them all (save for the 2003 and 2004 entries, which are missing from our database). I laughed, I cried, they were better than Cats.

1997: “Has a classic pitcher’s build and by the turn of the century he should one of baseball’s best right-handers. Think Alex Fernandez.”

1999: “Maybe accepting the power of prayer and lighting a candle for St. Jobe (patron saint of successful surgeries) will let him have a career. If Boles is creative, he could put Hernandez in the pen, but that may just be delaying the inevitable.”

2002: “We've been predicting doom for so long it's almost cliché to do so again, but the signs of collapse are evident.”

2007: “He's lasted so long with such high work loads that there's no sense worrying about when his eventual breakdown will occur. Much like Pedro Martinez, he's already outlasted every prediction of his impending collapse. When it happens, it'll happen.”

2011: “Deathless as a barrow-wight, Livan just keeps proving that human diversity transcends easy assertions about where any one pitcher's career path is supposed to wind up. “

I included that last one not only because of the brilliant Tolkien allusion, but because it sums up my point so perfectly: Livan is a freak. 1997: #1 starter. 1999: arm would fall off at any minute. 2011: who the hell knows, we give up. It’s almost as if Livan kept being Livan only to drive BP Annual player comment writers insane.

Regardless of why he did it, I’m thrilled that he did. Livan has long been one of my favorite players. I love freaks and outliers. Big fat ballplayers. Pitchers who can hit. Pitchers with rubber arms. Guys who throw 60-mph curveballs. Guys who defy every prediction we toss out. Livan is all of those and more. He may never have reached his ceiling, but he had one helluva career.

He was durable.
Despite all the weeping and gnashing of teeth about usage early in his career, and even though he played for notorious arm abusers Jim Leyland and Dusty Baker, Livan has never been on the disabled list. In fact, the only in-season transaction we have for him in our Injury History is a “day-to-day” flag on 5/14/2005. But game logs show that he made his next start, and the next one, and the one after that. In fact, he led the majors that year in innings pitched with 246, just nine innings short of his career high, set the year before. That figure also led the majors.

Livan has pitched more than 3,152 innings over 17 seasons so far, good enough for 112th all time. His average for a 162-game season comes out to 222, which is outstanding and incredibly valuable, especially given that Livan has never finished a season below replacement level.

He was a pretty good pitcher.
Seventeen seasons, and nary a sub-zero WARP to be found. In fairness, he’s showing -0.0 WARP so far for 2012, so he’s posted a nominal negative figure this year, but where I come from 0 is not less than zero, so I’m standing by my assertion. (Cue Colin Wyers counterpoint in 3, 2, 1 …)

Here are some other career metrics to mull over:

  • Winning percentage: .497
  • Quality starts: 259
  • ERA+: 96

We can argue about the value of winning percentage as a statistic, but that near-.500 mark, coupled with the other figures, tell me that Livan pitched well enough to give his team a chance to win just about every time. It’s not sexy, it’s not exciting, it may not be fun to watch, but there is serious value in that.

Think about your favorite team last year. Could they have used an extra league-average starter at some point last year? Odds are your answer is “yes.” And that’s what Livan was for nine different teams (and the Nationals twice): the guy you could count on to pitch every fifth day instead of the stopgap Triple-A guy. VALUE.

He could hit!
Livan Hernandez is third all-time in BWARP among pitchers. He hit more long balls (10) than the two guys ahead of him—Maddux and Glavine—combined (six). He also hit two triples, if you can believe it. Unfortunately, he walked exactly as often as he went deep: 10 walks in 1,110 plate appearances. Despite swinging at everything, Livan managed to post a .186 TAv, which is better than Maddux (.154) and as good as Glavine.

He won one Silver Slugger title in his career (2004) and probably would’ve won one or two more if it hadn’t been for that pesky Mike Hampton, who won it five years running (1999-2004).

He could field his position.
Errors aren’t a great way to evaluate defense, but Livan made just 15 in his 17-season career. Fifteen misplays vs. 210 putouts and 596 assists, for a .982 fielding percentage (and 57.2 FRAA). If Livan was involved in a play, there was a 98 percent chance an out was going to be recorded. Not bad for a big, fat, slow guy. He probably would have won at least one Gold Glove if it hadn’t been for that meddling Greg Maddux, who won it every year from 1990 through 2003, when the managers and coaches awarded it to Mike Hampton out of pity.*

*I may have made this up.

He did all of this while throwing the ball really, really slowly.
Brooksbaseball.net has data only from 2007-present, but for those years, Livan’s average fastball velocity is the fourth-slowest in the bigs—behind Jamie Moyer and two knuckleballers, Wakefield and Dickey. His average curveball velocity was 66.5, “good” enough for second-slowest behind Wake since ’07.

It can be confounding for hitters to face pitchers who throw below the “hitting speed,” so that’s one reason he’s remained effective(-ish), but he also has outstanding command and an ability to expand the zone, as Mike Fast detailed in this excellent article. Imagine standing in against him and getting a fastball in the low 80s, outside on the black, followed by a two-seamer that drops below the zone, backed up with a 62-mph curveball that lulls you to sleep. For guys who get geared up to face the Strasburgs and Verlanders of the world, that has to be a frustrating assignment.

Brooks Baseball PITCHf/x Fun Fact: Livan’s player card has him throwing one knuckleball between 2007 and today. It was in 2009, and it was called a ball.

He pelted a ball boy with sunflower seeds.


Finally, he may have been released for cupcake pilfering.

I feel like I can’t adequately express my affection for Livan. There’s really no good reason I should care about him. In many ways, he’s the very definition of average: 17 years, 36.4 WARP. But it’s the way he’s put up those average numbers over the course of his career that’s so fascinating. He defied every prognostication and managed to be pretty good and pretty entertaining for a very, very long time. There’s a small part of me that hopes he catches on with another team, but a larger part that hopes he hangs ’em up. He had a helluva career, and gave us more than our money’s worth. I wish him the best in whatever comes next.

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

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