Change in arm angle propels new-look Livan

By 28, many pitchers are approaching their peak. But he's already thrown over 1200 IP since age 21 and has become a sub-.500 workhorse. Which is okay if you have low aspirations.

    -- 2003 Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster

    Here's the dirty little secret about Livan Hernandez: He's never been all that good. He's given up runs at a park-adjusted rate 9% higher than league average over his career, the worst rate of any full-time starter over that period. His reputation as a promising or dependable starter over the years has been built more on luck than on performance: friendly parks, strong offenses, Cuban mystique, Eric Gregg's bizarre strike zone, and Dusty Baker's extreme loyalty. Many have been predicting a Hernandez collapse based on overuse, but to borrow the old joke, if Livan Hernandez collapsed, how could you tell?

      -- Baseball Prospectus 2003

Well, don't look now, but Livan Hernandez is one of the best pitchers in the National League. His ERA is just eighth-best, but after Friday night's start in San Juan he'll have pitched more innings than all seven of the pitchers with better ERA's. In fact, according to Bill James' Win Shares, Hernandez has been as valuable as any starter in the National League, right there with Jason Schmidt.

He's never been this good before. Sure, he was solid as a rookie in 1997 -- 9-3 with a 3.18 ERA -- but that was just 17 starts. But from 1998 through 2002, Hernandez went 60-66 with a 4.54 ERA. He looked like -- yes, Ron -- little more than a workhorse.

And yet, here he is. One of the best pitchers around, for the relatively bargain-basement price of less than $4 million.

Who knew? Nobody I know. I quoted Ron Shandler and Baseball Prospectus because they're friends, and I know they're trying to figure out what happened, too.

Well, here's what happened: on June 27 in Toronto, Livan Hernandez became a different pitcher.

He didn't fare particularly well against the Blue Jays that evening: in seven innings, Hernandez gave up eight hits, two walks, and five runs, while striking out just one Jay. But he also did something small that turned into something big.

As Expos pitching coach Randy St. Claire told me on Thursday, "Livan dropped his arm angle on some breaking balls. He'd done it just on a few pitches, but during our next side (throwing session) he asked me what I thought about it."

"I told him I liked the action on his breaking ball," St. Claire continued, "and I liked the reaction by the hitters. I told him, 'All your pitches are coming out of the same spot.' "

Previously when Hernandez pitched, his different pitches looked different before he threw them. "He was higher on his curveball than he was on his slider," St. Claire says, "and he was lower on his two-seamer than on his four-seamer."

In Hernandez's next start, at Shea Stadium on July 2, Hernandez threw every pitch from the same spot, low three-quarters, and he's remained in that spot in every game since.

The results? We've already seen that Hernandez is enjoying what's easily the best season of his career. But that's due almost entirely to what he's done over just the last two months.

Before July, Hernandez was 6-6 with a 4.19 ERA. Not bad. And his walk rate -- 2.1 per nine innings -- was the best of his career. The only "problem" was that Hernandez's strikeout rate was just 5.5 per nine innings, not real good and right in line with what he'd done in both 2001 and 2002 with the Giants.

Then, the change in pitching style. And along with it, an astronomical jump in Hernandez's strikeout rate. Consider: in his first 16 starts this season, he struck out six hitters three times, and seven hitters once. In his 12 starts since making the change, he's recorded more than seven strikeouts seven times. Where he was striking out 5.5 batters per nine innings before, he's been striking out 8.4 batters per nine innings since.

If you really want to get an appreciation for the transformation, do what I did: enter Hernandez's strikeouts into an Excel file, game by game. If this improvement is real -- and of course a dozen starts might mean very little -- then Hernandez has become a different sort of pitcher. A better sort of pitcher. And a great reminder that baseball players are human beings, with a great capacity to surprise us.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.