The Subtle Magic Of Livan Hernandez

ATLANTA, GA: Freddie Freeman #5 of the Atlanta Braves is interviewed as Livan Hernandez #61 gestures after the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Livan Hernandez has been designated for assignment, because he is not very good. He would be much worse, though, were it not for this one thing he's able to do.

As a baseball fan, you might say it's seldom a good time to talk about Livan Hernandez. Livan Hernandez is by no means new, fresh, or exciting, and he's not very good, and there are just so many things about baseball that are more interesting than Livan Hernandez is. Who among you wants to be reading about Livan Hernandez right now?

As a baseball fan, you might say it's seldom not a good time to talk about Livan Hernandez. Livan Hernandez is 37 years old and he's still ticking, even though his fastball has dropped into the low- to mid-80s and he doesn't do a whole lot of note. The most remarkable thing about Livan Hernandez is that he's survived so long with his skillset, and that places Livan within a miniature group of players who shouldn't be okay but are. Livan Hernandez's career, or at least the later portion of it, is a minor miracle.

Friday, Livan Hernandez was designated for assignment by the Braves. If there's a good time to talk about Livan Hernandez, it's now, so off we go. Even though Livan is presently out of a job, he probably won't be for much time, because he's still got something left. Or baseball teams believe he's still got something left, because he has them under his spell.

At his age, Livan has a repertoire, but he's closer to having no repertoire than most big-league pitchers are. He's become a classic junk-baller, and you'd swear he's left-handed, even after watching him throw right-handed. Like Jamie Moyer, you watch Livan for a few minutes and you wonder how he stays employed. He's had little trouble staying employed.

Livan has some things going for him, but perhaps most notably, he's among the very best in baseball at expanding the strike zone. You've probably heard this before, but you might not appreciate the magnitude of Livan's influence. I ran a study of strikes versus expected strikes based on the PITCHf/x strike zone a few weeks ago, and since 2008, Livan has generated 22 more strikes than expected per 1,000 pitches. That's the fourth-highest rate out of the 509-pitcher sample, and the two guys directly in front of him had somewhat limited playing time.

Okay, so those are numbers. Maybe you're more of a visual learner. Thanks to Texas Leaguers, here's Livan's called strike zone since 2010. I would've gone back to 2008 but the site has been giving me trouble.


Now compare that to Justin Masterson's called strike zone since 2010. I recommend opening the two images in separate tabs and alternating back and forth.


It's not so much about getting high pitches or low pitches. It's more about getting pitches off of the edges. Livan Hernandez has effectively been pitching with a bigger strike zone than pretty much everyone else, which has allowed him to get by with worse pitches than pretty much everyone else.

For further elucidation, I will now present to you Livan Hernandez's most generous called strikes since 2011. I'll be showing you the lowest strike, the highest strike, the most inside strike, and the most outside strike. We see the pitch locations in the charts above; it might help even more to see examples of the pitches themselves.

Here is Livan Hernandez, getting a low first-pitch strike on Mark Hamilton:


Here is where the pitch was on Gameday:


Here is Livan Hernandez getting a high first-pitch strike on Chris Johnson:


Here is where the pitch was on Gameday:


Here is Livan Hernandez getting an inside first-pitch strike on Jason Heyward:


Here is where the pitch was on Gameday:


Here is Livan Hernandez getting an outside first-pitch strike on Shane Victorino:


Here is where the pitch was on Gameday:


Incidentally, Livan Hernandez's second-most outside strike over the sample was also a first pitch to Shane Victorino, earlier in the same game. Some people might not like the idea of a pitcher getting a more generous strike zone, but against Shane Victorino, I suspect many of those people would allow it.

What do you notice about those pitches above? They're all the first pitches of the at-bats, and that's a mighty important pitch. Additionally, none of them are egregious. They all probably should have been called balls, but they're close enough that you think, well, okay, maybe. They're close enough that Livan gets the benefit of the doubt.

These things are so subtle and seemingly insignificant as they happen, but they add up over time, as demonstrated in the Hernandez and Masterson strike-zone charts. Let a guy live on the fringes and he doesn't have to come over the plate, which is the last place Livan Hernandez wants to go. Have you seen Livan Hernandez's stuff?

We've only recently begun to understand more about the significance of pitch-framing. It's allowed us to better appreciate catchers like Jose Molina. But there's a pitcher influence to gaining and losing the strike zone as well, and Livan Hernandez has it figured out better than most. Better than almost all. Livan Hernandez has long been getting more benefits of the doubt than the overwhelming majority of his peers, thanks to the way that he pitches, and largely for that reason, Livan Hernandez is still pitching. Maybe you don't like that this is a part of the game, but as long as it is, some guys will be better at it than others, and Livan Hernandez is one of the very very best.

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