Meet the Mets’ Fifth Starter

livanhernandez Meet the Mets Fifth StarterPORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.—With the 2009 season a week away, the Mets have not announced who their fifth starter will be. But on Saturday, tucked away on a minor league field shaped to mirror the dimensions of Citi Field, Livan Hernandez made his strongest case yet for the spot, while early favorite Freddy Garcia provided more evidence that he simply isn’t up to the job.

Hernandez threw 97 pitches over seven innings against a collection of Mets reserves and minor leaguers in an intrasquad game, allowing one run and striking out five—but far less important than the results were the pitches he threw. With a fastball velocity around 85 miles per hour, near the bottom of what’s acceptable for a major-league starter, Hernandez needs to command it well, along with his slider and curveball. On Saturday, he did just that.

Meanwhile, Garcia failed to spot his fastball consistently, and had trouble reaching even 85 miles per hour. When he did, his pitches often sailed high and outside. Without the basic building block of a fastball, his solid off-speed offerings won’t be enough.

For Hernandez, the first inning was a bit of a struggle to get loose. He located his fastball at 82-83 miles per hour, but it tended to stay up at 85-86. For a pitcher who relies on keeping the ball on the ground, those mistakes will often lead to short outings. It happened enough in 2008 to see his season ERA balloon to a career-high 6.05, and is the primary reason he was available to the Mets on a minor-league deal.

By the end of the first inning, however, the Hernandez the Mets are hoping for arrived. He froze a batter with a sinking fastball on the inner part of the plate to end the first, and by the second inning was regularly getting ahead of hitters. His curveball, which comes in at 65 miles per hour and breaks a foot when deployed properly, drew appreciative murmurs from some minor leaguers taking in his outing from behind the metal-fence backstop.

Garcia, meanwhile, still hasn’t found a way to recover his fastball after a string of injuries. He threw several at 80 miles per hour—roughly the speed of Johan Santana’s changeup. While his curve and slider frequently found the plate, they averaged the mid-to-upper 70s in speed, and even the minor leaguers had no trouble making that adjustment.

Hernandez kept opponents guessing, inducing plenty of swings and misses, and seeming to get stronger as the game went on. The swings and misses will be vital for Hernandez, who at his best would strike out six to seven per nine innings, which slowly declined to five, then four, yet experienced continued success. But he averaged around 3.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 2008—far below the minimum level needed for success in today’s game. The result is many balls in play, and a pitcher almost completely at the mercy of luck.

It remains to be seen if major league hitters will miss as many of Hernandez’s offerings as their minor-league equivalents did Saturday, and Hernandez seemed to know that. Four separate times, he reached back for a little extra on his fastball, getting to 88-89 miles per hour. Each time, the ball flattened out, and the hitter laced a hit, the fourth hit a double to right center field by pitcher Jonathon Niese.

But expecting pyrotechnics from Hernandez, Orlando Hernandez’s half-brother, is to ignore his career. The two are polar opposites as pitchers. Livan is a workhorse with a compact motion who succeeds despite lowering strikeout rates, while El Duque always struck out plenty of hitters with a gravity-defying motion that he deployed as long as injuries didn’t interfere—and they often did.

With Garcia likely to begin the season in extended spring training, and fellow fifth-starter sweepstakes entrants Niese and Tim Redding headed for the minor leagues and the disabled list, respectively, it appears to be up to Livan Hernandez as long as the Mets and Pedro Martinez stay far apart on an appropriate salary for 2009. (The Mets appear to think Pedro deserves $1-2 million; Pedro appears steadfast in the $5-8 million range.)

Penciling Hernandez in for one of those spots, a season removed from a 6.05 ERA, is a gamble. Saturday, at least, the gamble looked smart.

Howard Megdal is the author of The Baseball Talmud, a humorous analysis of Jewish baseball players. It will be available in stores March 31.