Hernandez's experience adds to 'pen
Sixteen-year veteran provides Tribe with leadership
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Roberto Hernandez wasn't a member of the Indians last season, but that doesn't mean he wasn't watching the club's bullpen misfortune unfold. "I'm an addict," he said of his baseball-watching habits, which are aided by the magic of satellite TV. That addiction led Hernandez to see one particularly painful week for Fausto Carmona, when the young right-hander, entrusted with the closing duties in the wake of the Bob Wickman trade, blew two save opportunities in Boston and a third in Detroit. "I look at that, and there was no Wickman at that time, no veterans around at that time," Hernandez said. "[Carmona] just needed somebody to put his arm around him like Bobby Thigpen did to me when I was starting out with the White Sox. He needed someone to calm him down and give him some encouragement, because it's not easy." The 42-year-old Hernandez has certainly been around long enough to know what it's like. In 16 big-league seasons, he's seen all the ups and downs that life in the bullpen has to offer. And the Indians this season will be counting on the leadership that comes from that experience as much as Hernandez's durable right arm. "I don't want [the younger pitchers] to feel like I'm not approachable or that I'm imposing," he said. "It doesn't matter if you're Latin or American. I speak both languages fluently, and I can communicate easily." Hernandez, who pitched a scoreless inning in Wednesday's 8-1 pounding of the Blue Jays at Chain of Lakes Park, wants to communicate with his actions, more than anything else. "One of the things that they're going to see is, good or bad, I'm going to be the same guy," he said. "After a good game and hopefully after a bad game, you'll watch how some of the veterans will wait around for the reporters and do their stuff. That's being a pro. You have to have that mentality. We have a job to do, and good or bad, we've got to answer the questions and not run and hide." When Hernandez was a young kid first coming up in the league, he had the likes of Thigpen, Scott Radinsky and Carlton Fisk showing him the ropes and teaching him that life in the Major Leagues is not just about winning, but also about developing and progressing as a player and a person. It was Fisk who took Hernandez aside in 1992 and gave him advice about his fastball that has resonated ever since. "He said, 'Use it, or you're gonna lose it,'" Hernandez recalled. "And he turned out to be right. I'm still throwing it decent and still getting good results." But while the fastball might be his predominant pitch, Hernandez knows he has to mix up his selection to remain effective. "You can only go to the well so many times," he said. "Once you pitch enough in this league, people know your M.O." To prevent predictability, Hernandez has been dropping in a slider against left-handed batters the past three years. It's helped him remain remarkably consistent in this late stage of his career, as he put up a 2.58 ERA in 67 appearances with the Mets in 2005 and a combined ERA of 3.11 in 68 appearances with the Pirates and Mets in '06.
Hernandez does, however, find himself fighting bad habits. "Sometimes I completely forget about the inside half [against lefties]," he said. "When that happens, they just pepper me to left field. So I've got to get out of that trap." That Hernandez is still figuring out such things about his game is a testament to baseball's lifelong learning demands. "I may be a veteran," he said, "but the day you stop learning new things is the day you'd better pack it up and go home." When Hernandez packs up his Spring Training luggage and begins a new season, he'll likely do so as one of the Indians' primary setup men. He has 326 saves in 960 career appearances, but he wasn't signed to close games. He was, however, signed with the hope that his body will remain fit to perform. "I can pitch you an inning every day," he said. "I prepare my mind and body for that." That body has held up well over the years. Hernandez has had four stints on the DL over the years, but three of those trips went the minimum of 15 days and the fourth -- a right elbow strain at the beginning of his 2002 season with the Royals -- only cost him a month of action. "I've had a little tendinitis here and there, but in 16 years of throwing the baseball, I've never had a major arm surgery," he said. "I've been blessed to be able to compete and do this." And the fact that he's still doing it, he believes, makes any words of wisdom he has for the Tribe's youngsters carry a little more resonance. "I think it weighs more if you're active and walking the same steps with them," he said. "Because you can talk the talk, but also try to walk it, too."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.