- Alan Schwarz, MLB
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No on-field area of baseball has changed more in the past 30 years than the sophisticated (and often puzzling) use of bullpens. The development of closers and then setup men, combined with increased offense and offensive patience, has left the Durable Starter as endangered as $3 beers.
Of course, some starters still last longer than most, and occasionally allow their relievers to keep barbecuing weenies in the bullpen through the eighth and even ninth inning. If we agree for the purposes of this discussion that Durability means the ability to go deep into games -- rather than make 34-35 starts in a season -- it's these guys we're looking for.
Ask a major league executive for his choice as Most Durable Starter, and more often than not, the first image he sees is the last one he saw in October: Curt Schilling. Not only does everyone know that Schilling has pretty good stamina for modern starters, but anyone who takes the mound with blood oozing from his sutured ankle clearly gets the benefit of the doubt, moxie-wise.
But this does get a little more complicated than mere impressions. Let's step back for a moment and look at the starters who went the farthest into games, with innings as our measuring stick (and, just for fun, the pitchers who came out earliest):
A few thoughts are in order. One, Schilling indeed places third, two spots above workhorse foil Randy Johnson. Two, judging from Nos. 4 and 5 on the Fewest list, the Dodgers had better have their relievers start doing some extra calisthenics.
But most importantly, we appear to have a new, very strong candidate for Most Durable, that being Livan Hernandez, who fills up our TV screens when he's on but tends to disappear when he's off.
Exiled in Montreal and San Juan for the past two years, Hernandez elicits a round of "Oh yeah, of course!" from club personnel when his name is mentioned. Not only does he rank at the top statistically -- more on that later -- he gets the heartiest votes from executives who are always on the lookout for pitching stamina.
"He knows how to add and subtract to his pitches," one NL assistant GM said. "When he needs to muscle up and come faster, he has it. He can lighten up and leave something in the tank for later.
"He never labors. You look at his girth and you'd think he would, but it's almost like he's just having a game of catch out there. I've never seen him walk off the mound looking tired. It could be 90 degrees in Florida, and it's the fourth or fifth before he even sweats."
Hernandez has led the National League each of the last two years in innings (255 and 233 1/3) and complete games (nine and eight). Those 17 complete games are more than any other NL team has had during that span. Take that, Prior boy.
Hernandez, soon to be just 30 (according to official records), also was pretty darned good those two years, posting a combined 3.41 ERA, ninth in the league. Given that, the three-year, $21 million contract extension he signed with Montreal (now Washington) last year has become one of baseball's bargains. Some executives surveyed called it one of the most valuable veteran contracts in the game.
If teams are craving hitters who will wait through enough pitches to get to the underbelly of bullpens, those teams are just as much looking for pitchers who can take that best shot and stay in the game. Hernandez did just that -- the past three years, he has pitched more effectively from the seventh inning on (.654 OPS) than from the first through sixth (.724).
(By the way, while getting deep innings-wise is the most important part of durability, Hernandez also placed second in the majors last year in pitches per game, 112.2 to Jason Schmidt's 112.8.)
At 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, Hernandez is indeed a little tough for people to get their arms around. "He's not the kind of guy who lights you up," one AL advance scout said. "But you can't argue with the results. If you're looking for durability, I'm not sure there's anyone better right now."
Another AL scout claimed that he would still take a healthy Josh Beckett, Kerry Wood or Mark Prior over Hernandez. "When they're on, those guys are still out there throwing great stuff after 130 pitches," he said. The scout also leaned against Schilling because, "The American League is a tougher grind as far as lineups. I don't think any AL pitcher matches up to those other guys."
Yes, National League pitchers do have the benefit of two to three easier at-bats against opposing pitchers, helping them last longer. But the scout was actually forgetting something important -- NL pitchers tend to come out of games earlier, through no fault of their own, for pinch-hitters. The average AL start lasted 5.92 innings last year, the NL 5.85. Which makes Hernandez' rising above the pack as far as he does even more impressive.
"He's not the prettiest," the NL executive said about Hernandez. "But this game ain't about pretty. It's about performance. You have to give the guy his due."
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.
12hMatt Walks, ESPN.com