Livan Hernandez was much more famous than Kevin Millwood. We don't often talk about the Hall of Fame in literal terms -- as, in fact, a Hall of Famous Players -- and instead try to compare players based on their play. Well, Millwood was probably a better pitcher than Hernandez
Livan Hernandez was much more famous than Kevin Millwood. We don't often talk about the Hall of Fame in literal terms -- as, in fact, a Hall of Famous Players -- and instead try to compare players based on their play. Well, Millwood was probably a better pitcher than Hernandez if you want to compare their entire careers. Millwood led the league in ERA one year, in WHIP another year, and he twice finished in the top six in Cy Young Award voting.
Livan Hernandez did none of these things. But Hernandez was the more famous of the two men anyway. There was just something wonderfully compelling about Livan, a charisma that made it impossible to look away. Maybe it was the way he threw. Maybe it was the great background story. Consider this: In 1997, Hernandez was named the World Series MVP. What makes that fascinating is that he pitched pretty terribly in that World Series.
In Game 1, Hernandez lasted 5 2/3 innings against the Indians, gave up eight hits and two home runs, left the game with runners on first and second. But the Marlins scored seven runs off Cleveland starter Orel Hershiser, so Hernandez got the win.
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In Game 5, Hernandez lasted eight innings, but he allowed six runs, five of them earned. He started the ninth inning with an 8-4 lead and he couldn't get an out before being pulled. In all, Hernandez had a 5.27 ERA and a staggering 1.829 WHIP. He walked more batters than he struck out.
For this, Hernandez was Series MVP? Yes. Because there was something mesmerizing about watching Livan Hernandez pitch, something hypnotizing. None who saw it will ever forget his 15-strikeout game against the Braves in the National League Championship Series that year, in large part because home-plate umpire Eric Gregg seemed to call a strike on every pitch that happened to be within two feet of the outside corner against left-handed batters. It is staggering to see it even now, but this was the effect Hernandez had on people.
Hernandez defected from Cuba when he was 20; he sneaked out of his hotel room when the Cuban national team was training in Mexico. He was regarded as one of the most promising pitchers in the world, and he came along at precisely the time when former Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga wanted to make a big splash. Huizenga and the Marlins poured everything into a full-on assault on the World Series in 1997. They brought in free agents and high-priced players from all corners -- Kevin Brown, Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, Alex Fernandez -- and signing Hernandez, especially with the large Cuban community in Miami, was part of the plan.
Hernandez was called up in June of that 1997 World Series season and pitched well. He made his name in that postseason. And then he began his long and winding 17-year journey through the Major Leagues. Hernandez played for nine teams -- and he had two stints with the Nationals. He was durable. He led the league in innings pitched every year from 2003-05, and made the All-Star team twice. Hernandez's 2003 season was his best; he went 15-10 with a 3.20 ERA for Montreal and led the league in complete games.
Hernandez was a power pitcher with a mid-90s fastball in his younger days, but he fairly quickly became a sinkerballer who attacked hitters by changing speeds and arm angles. That's part of what made him so fun to watch. He seemed willing to try anything get an out. A couple of years after Livan defected, his older brother Orlando -- the famed El Duque -- came to the United States, and he was even more of a show with his many windups and occasional bloop pitch. Together the Hernandez brothers entertained countless fans and fooled countless hitters.
Livan kept pitching even after he had stopped fooling hitters. In his last five years, he pitched for the Twins, Rockies, Mets, Nationals, Braves and Brewers, and he kept piling up innings even though batters hit .303 and slugged .460 against him over that time. In all, Hernandez went 178-177 with a 4.44 ERA.
Kevin Millwood, meanwhile, pitched entirely without flash. He was an 11th-round pick in the 1993 Draft out of Bessemer City, N.C., a small town about a half hour from Charlotte. He did not overwhelm anyone at first in the Minor Leagues, but as a 22-year-old, he finally got the call to Triple-A, where he had the month or so of his life. Millwood went 7-0 with a 1.93 ERA in nine starts, hitters couldn't touch him, and he got the call to the Atlanta Braves.
There was nothing spectacular about Millwood; he was a big man with a good fastball and he attacked the strike zone relentlessly. There's a statistic you probably know called BABIP, which is short for batting average on balls in play. This does not include walks, strikeouts or home runs. One of the great questions of baseball is: Just how much control do pitchers have on balls hit in play?
This was a particularly interesting question with Millwood because his success as a pitcher was built around his BABIP. For instance, in 1999, his .238 BABIP was by far the lowest in baseball. And that was Millwood's best year; he went 18-7 with a 2.68 ERA, he led the league in WHIP and hits per nine innings, he made the All-Star team and finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting. He was just 24 years old and looked at that point to be a star in the making.
But in 2008, his BABIP was .358, the HIGHEST in the baseball, and that year he went 9-10 with a 5.07 ERA and gave up 11.7 hits per nine innings.
It was like that throughout his career, some years his BABIP would be low, like in 2002 and '04, and those were terrific seasons. Sometimes it was ridiculously high like 2004 and '07, and those were dreadful years. This was the cost of Millwood being an attacking type of pitcher; he relied on his defense and luck, and the millimeters difference between a double-play ground ball and a line drive into the gap. In the end, it all evened out; his career BABIP of .301 is roughly the average. But few had their BABIP fluctuate quite the way he did.
This is an irony of Hernandez and Millwood. Livan was a seemingly erratic pitcher who was basically the same pitcher throughout his career. And Millwood was a seemingly consistent pitcher who had spectacular ups and downs.
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.