Commentary

Livan proving speed is overrated

Slow and steady still winning the race for Hernandez, improved Nationals

Originally Published: May 4, 2010
By Doug Glanville | ESPN.com

My son is creeping up on 2 years old, and more and more I think about the lessons I want to impart to him. He's currently obsessed with all things Thomas the Tank Engine, but I know at some point I will read him the story of "The Tortoise and the Hare." I hope its message sinks in.

In today's version of baseball, the hare gets off to a good start, like any other time. Teams that have the payroll, the flash, the history automatically can race ahead quickly or have the ability to reload and regroup.

[+] EnlargeHernandez
Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMILivan Hernandez is tied with Ubaldo Jimenez for the best ERA in the majors (0.87).
But with a nomadic and spotty history, the Washington Nationals are still playing solid baseball. It seems as if every time you look up, Nyjer Morgan is at third base. Josh Willingham is a hungry player who plays like he can't wait to prove you wrong. Ryan Zimmerman is showing once again that he is the total package. Even Pudge Rodriguez, who made his major league debut in 1991 (the year I was drafted), keeps finding a way.

As impressive as these position players have been, I've been blown away by two of the Nats pitchers who themselves will never be accused of blowing away anyone. Livan Hernandez and Matt Capps have held this team together without short-circuiting the radar gun we all associate with success.

We sometimes talk about that rare pitcher who throws "below hitting speed." I would like to call that a backhanded compliment, but it's more like a backhanded slap with crusty batting gloves across the hurler's face.

So now that we've started a duel, let's look a little closer at one of the major leaguers we just insulted: Livan. He loops a 64 mph curveball up there, then eventually runs something 83-ish on your hands, and to your shock and dismay, he saws off your bat. But battling what seems like David Copperfield at work, you are unable to catch up to his "heat." To put the numbers with the magic, going into his start today he has a 3-1 record and a microscopic 0.87 ERA.

Livan isn't the first pitcher to employ the "slow, slower and slowest" tactic. You would think after years of seeing Bob Tewksbury or Tom Glavine carve up players like ice sculptures, we hitters would finally say, "OK, these guys can pitch." But our egos don't allow it. If you blow me away with 98 mph on the black, I can tip my cap, but if you get me out because you set me up for a pitch by only showing me your weakest curveball three weeks ago in our previous encounter, I have a right to be insulted and to challenge you to that duel.

Livan might not be throwing fastballs at the speed of light, but he is quite simply light-years ahead of the hitters. And therein lies the irony. He is throwing slower than Jose Canseco once did during his disastrous outing in Boston, but Livan's approach and ability to adapt are faster than any heater Billy Wagner has ever thrown.

Baseball is a lot about being ahead of your opponent: physically and, more importantly, mentally. Pitchers with "plus" fastballs and no plan are about to be "minus" a career. A closer like the Dodgers' Jonathan Broxton had better have a plan and some movement to go along with that 100 mph fastball, or most hitters will sit on it and turn it around. Hitting a straight and poorly located fastball is like taking Thomas the Tank Engine away from a toddler. Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez is Ubaldo because he has velocity, but also because he has location and secondary pitches where the bottom drops out of them.

I wasn't a pitcher, but I understood fairly quickly that pitching isn't about throwing strikes; it's about throwing to a target. Livan is doing that with a blend of speeds, movement and sheer confidence that guarantees success, especially with Capps on his team.

Fortunately for Livan, when he is finished for the day after another quality start, the Nationals can hand the ball to Capps. Capps already has 10 saves and has a nearly invisible 0.66 ERA. This year he is just painting corners, getting ahead of hitters and getting people out when it counts. He isn't throwing the ball through barns or making scouts spill their coffee, but he is closing out games and chalking up wins for the surprising Nationals.

Few are expecting the Nats to go very far this year. I certainly didn't pick them to finish anywhere near the top of the NL East, much less win it, but they have gotten better, and manager Jim Riggleman is a good fit for where they are in their development. He is patient, understanding … tortoise-like.

Growing up in a world of fast cars, instant information and stopwatches, baseball celebrates much of the same fast-paced tools. We like to tell stories of throwing a ball so hard that the glove popped. We feel this gives us the power and the right to intimidate and stick our chests out. But while we flex in the mirror, light up radar guns at 100 mph without getting a speeding ticket and don't worry about hitting the corners, the tortoise is gaining on us, quietly getting outs, slyly watching the hitters' feet shift in the box in anticipation for that slider and then throwing that cutter on your hands.

When all is said and done, even the hare inevitably will slow down, maybe from age, from exhaustion or maybe because that pill-form PED stopped working. At that point, like it or not, to stay in this game that player must become a tortoise, or be prepared to watch Livan and his other shell-wearing friends from the bench … or maybe even from home.

Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His forthcoming book, "The Game from Where I Stand," will be released May 11.

• MLB analyst for ESPN and ESPN.com
• Played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers
• Email: mail@dougglanville.com
• Website: http://www.dougglanville.com/