MILWAUKEE — At 37 years old, showcasing a fastball that no longer beats many major league batters and a breaking ball that has, at times, dipped below the speed limit outside Miller Park, Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Livan Hernandez doesn’t cast the intimidating shadow that he once did on the mound.
Once a World Series MVP and an imposing innings-eater when the Florida Marlins won a championship in 1997, Hernandez is no longer the workhorse pitcher that twice led the league in complete games and twice was named an all-star.
But with age, Hernandez has changed more than his approach. He’s changed his role. Formerly the workhorse of any rotation he was a part of, Hernandez has traded that hat in for a completely different one. He’s now, arguably, the Brewers’ best veteran mentor. And keep in mind, he was only signed a little more than a week ago.
Milwaukee center fielder Carlos Gomez knew Hernandez from their days in Minnesota together. And as a young player, one lauded for his unique five-tool potential, Gomez admits that he didn’t have the understanding of the game to properly use those tools.
That’s where Hernandez came in. A daunting veteran, Hernandez would look Gomez straight in the eye and tell him he could be better. To improve Gomez’s approach, he taught the young outfielder the method pitchers would use against him and explain how they would exploit his weaknesses. Slowly, but surely, Gomez would learn.
Over several months with the Twins, these little sessions would happen randomly, as Hernandez told him to focus on remaining patient.
“He told me, ‘You have to get the last ability,'” Gomez said. ‘Everybody talks about the five tools. This is the sixth tool. … Learn how they’ll pitch you, who you’ve got in front of you. If you know what’s going on in the game, you understand the game, you’ll do better.'”
Good advice, especially when you consider Hernandez’s pedigree is in pitching, not at the plate. But when you’re around the game as long as Hernandez has been, that knowledge comes with time.
“Knowing the experience that he has, that can be good for young guys,” Gomez said. “He can be a mentor to a lot of guys, having been in the World Series and in the playoffs and in a lot of other stuff in 17 years of a career.”
Even on Saturday, in a clubhouse entirely new to him — it was just his second day at his locker next to Nyjer Morgan, another former teammate — a handful of teammates surrounded him, including Morgan and second baseman Rickie Weeks, listening to him speak until just before they had to leave for batting practice.
Without guys like Mark Kotsay and Craig Counsell — both long-time veterans known for their mentoring — on the roster this season, the Brewers didn’t have many guys who could call to the experience that Hernandez can. It’s a veteran presence that the team has sorely lacked in the first half of 2012.
But even Hernandez is getting used to some new things, as his career has twisted and turned since its arguable peak in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. He’s been with nine teams to this point, pitching in all different kinds of situations — as the lead guy, as the end of the rotation guy, as a fill-in — but for the first time in his career, he’s had to pitch out of the bullpen in 2012.
It’s something that started in Atlanta, when — in 18 appearances — he tallied a 1-1 record and racked up the first save of his 17-year career — a career that included 352 decisions as a starter. It’s something he says he never expected.
“It’s different,” Hernandez said. “Coming from the bullpen is a little different than being a starter. You prepare differently. I know I still can be a starting pitcher, but right now, I’m playing from the bullpen and I’ve tried to do the best I can.”
In long relief, Hernandez hasn’t had much of a chance to show his worth in the Brewers’ bullpen quite yet. Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke admitted that even he hasn’t gotten to know his newest veteran pitcher very well.
But his influence is palpable. And if Hernandez can affect the Brewers in any way, he may have even more of an impact as a mentor to the team’s young players. He certainly helped Gomez in their time together in Minneapolis.
“People ask me a lot of questions, and I like to answer them and to know all the guys,” Hernandez said. “I’ve seen a lot of stuff, and I know what you have to do to be at this level for a long time. … Maybe one day those guys will help other young guys. I enjoy every moment that I do that.”
And according to Hernandez, there’s plenty of those moments to come. He doesn’t plan on hanging it up any time soon. And if he gets the chance — say, if the Brewers needed a starter after the trade deadline — Hernandez would love the shot to start again.
“I’ve never gotten hurt, and I’m going to continue to play baseball,” Hernandez said. “I still love it, and the day I don’t, I’ll pack my stuff up and go home. But I love it and I’m still going to pitch.”