It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for those fans in attendance at Nats park this weekend. On Saturday, fans were delighted to watch an absolute pitching gem by a pitcher who belongs to a significant part of the franchise's brief history in the District. The following day, those same fans watched their prized offseason acquisition implode on the mound for the second start in a row. In the rubble of destruction from the failure of his first three starts, that pitcher left many unanswered questions as to his future role in the organization. Examining these two pitchers, Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis, side by side presents an interesting and stark contrast.
Entering free agency, Mike Rizzo and the Nationals had the stated goal of improving the pitching of a team that at one point during the 2009 season featured four rookie starting pitchers and John Lannan, the team's ace by default. Their first move, in what ended up being a relatively busy offseason, was to sign the former Colorado pitcher Jason Marquis to a two year, $15 million contract. The contract would become their most expensive move of the season for the Nationals and Marquis would be touted by the front office as an innings eater and a guy that could serve as a mentor to the young pitchers on the team with similar pitching styles. Marquis made the All-Star team for the National League last season, but then suffered a decline in production during the second half that should have served as a warning sign to the next team that signed him. His ERA jumped from 3.65 to 4.56 and his WHIP went from 1.31 to 1.48. Things got so bad, that the Rockies even decided to leave him out of the NLDS rotation.
Lost in the shuffle of the various signings made by the Nationals this offseason, was the resigning of veteran pitcher Livan Hernandez to a minor league contract. Five years earlier, when baseball returned to Washington D.C., Livan had been the team's stopper. Pitching 246.1 innings with a 3.98 ERA and 15 wins to his name, Hernandez was a large part of the Nationals push for a wild card spot in 2005. He was later traded in 2006 to the Diamondbacks for Matt Chico and Garrett Mock, two players that he beat out in spring training to make this year's team. After getting traded from the Nats, he bounced around to different teams until he resigned with the team last season as they shut down some of their younger pitchers who had reached their inning limits for the year. For his part, Livo, who has not been as sharp as he was for the Nats in 2005, claims that he injured himself by pitching too much late in the season for the team as they made a push for the playoffs. It should be noted, however, that he was not angry about it and also said this spring training that it was the first time since the injury that he was at full strength. In retrospect and based off of early returns, it appears that the Nationals may have offered the wrong guy the guaranteed contract.
This weekend as the Nationals took on the Milwaukee Brewers at home, these two pitchers started the final two games of the series. It is these two games that will now be examined. First, let us examine how the two pitchers' stuff compared to what they brought in 2009. According to pitch f/x data, Livo's changeup had much more movement than it did last season and so did his slider. In addition, his forkball and sinker looked much sharper than they did in 2009. On the other hand, Marquis' stuff was extremely pale in comparison to his stuff from the previous season. On Sunday, he threw his sinker 20 times with an average speed of 87.9 MPH, 5.18 inches of vertical break, and 8.34 inches of horizontal break. In 2009, Marquis' sinker averaged 90.6 MPH, 5.54 inches of vertical break, and 9.41 inches of horizontal break. He threw his secondary pitch, the slider, only three times and also lacked the movement that made the pitch so successful in 2009. Clearly, his stuff has not been the same this year and Marquis has acknowledged much through spring training and after his horrid start on Sunday.
As for the respective game plans for both pitchers this weekend, those were remarkably different as well. Out of Marquis' first 19 pitches on Sunday, 16 of them were sinkers, all around the same speed and with the same approxiamate movement. Livo threw four different types of pitches before he even reached a pitch count of 10 while taking speed of his fastball from time to time. On top of that, Livo seemed to have a plan for attacking each hitter and even got a few strikeouts because of it. This is best explemlified by his strikeout of Casey McGehee in the 3rd inning, who he changed speeds and pitches to throughout the count while keeping the ball out of his hot zone (down and away). He pitched to contact the whole game and only had four pitches that were swung on and missed by the batter, three of which were for a strikeout. Coversely, Marquis was throwing the same pitches all over the place, presumably to find a feel for his sinker. He fell behind in the count to every batter he faced, except for Jim Edmonds, who he was ahead in the count to 0-2 until he hit him with a pitch (he also hit Prince Fielder earlier in the inning). And finally, the mechanics of the two pitchers were probably the biggest difference. Livo repeated his delivery from the same arm slot over and over throughout the game. Marquis had inconsistent mechanics and could not find a repeatable delivery in only one inning of work.
No one expects Livan Hernandez to continue to pitch like he has so far this year, but if he can continue to put up similar types of performances while eating innings, then his position as filler until Strasburg gets to the majors may instead turn into the role Marquis was assumed to have filled as an innings eater and mentor. And Marquis' position, after one of the worst starts in Nationals history by a pitcher, is up in the air. His next turn in the rotation will be skipped in favor of Miguel Batista and the Nationals will hope that he find a way to work out his issues before they are forced to take more drastic measures (i.e. DL him, move to pen, DFA). It is ironic, really, how the guy the team expected so little out of produced in the biggest way possible, while the pitcher they expected the most from bombed so badly. The old cliche "never judge a book by its cover" seems to be relevant in this comparison with Livo as the underappreciated classic that still has a few surprise chapters at the end. And Marquis, the overhyped bestseller whose final chapters may leave the reader with an anticlimactic ending.