Herrera's tall tale posted: Thursday, May 22, 2008
Here's a minor leaguer to follow: Danny Herrera, the throw-in in the Edinson Volquez-Josh Hamilton deal last winter. Herrera was barely mentioned, but he's pitching brilliantly in the minors and, as C.L. Brown writes, there's really nobody else quite like him.
"It wasn't a big deal that I wasn't really mentioned in the trade," he said. "I was a minor league guy just thrown in the mix. I like being kind of behind the scenes to do my own thing."
It's always been that way. Herrera, 23, is the only [Louisville] Bats pitcher under 6 feet tall. The team lists him at 5-8, but he says he's really 5-6.
He almost always has been the shortest pitcher on his team. And usually he's been underestimated.
Herrera is from Odessa, Texas, and went to Permian High School of "Friday Night Lights" fame. When he arrived at the University of New Mexico, pitching coach Ryan Brewer told him he didn't think he had major league potential.
"At the time he was right," Herrera said. "I was an 18-year-old kid with not a lot of stuff. You don't see very many guys with not very much velocity and a small stature make it up there."
As a starter in his final year at New Mexico, Herrera led the team in nearly every major stat, including wins (10-0), ERA (2.24) and strikeouts (104), and was named a third-team All-American by Baseball America.
He said Brewer admitted he was wrong. Herrera credits his former pitching coach for helping him develop the array of pitches he has needed to be effective.
Herrera doesn't overpower hitters but throws several pitches well. Most relievers stick to a fastball and one or two offspeed pitches. Herrera throws what he calls "seven different kinds of smoke."
The best of them is his screwball that, as the name suggests, is quirky and uncommon and leaves most hitters flabbergasted. It also keeps them off-balance and makes his mid-80s fastball more effective.
Before this season, Baseball America did not include Herrera among a list of the Reds' top 30 prospects. In John Sickels' book, he wrote up 39 of Cincinnati's prospects, and did include Herrera as one of 12 Grade-C prospects. That's the lowest grade in the book -- there's no such thing as a C- or D prospect -- so it seems likely that if Sickels had limited himself to 30 Reds, Herrera wouldn't have made the cut.
But some of that is due to Herrera's projected role. As Sickels wrote, "His size and lack of velocity will keep him out of major roles, but I think he can be an effective short reliever, no pun intended."
As we've seen many times, in the minors you don't need a big fastball, or any fastball at all, to rack up strikeouts if you're doing everything else well. Remember Kirk Saarloos? He was another little guy (though of course not this little) who piled up plenty of strikeouts until he reached Triple-A. Most young pitchers without decent fastballs eventually hit a wall.
How rare is a 5-6 pitcher in the major leagues? Hard to say, because official heights for pitchers are notoriously inaccurate. At least for the shorter ones. Basically, any time you see a pitcher listed at 6-0 or shorter, you may assume he's actually an inch or two shorter than that. Since World War II, there have been only three major league pitchers listed as 5-6. There were 13 listed at 5-7, and 12 at 5-8 (I'm not counting position players pressed into emergency pitching duties).
I suppose the most famous short pitcher was 5-6 Bobby Shantz, who won 119 games over 16 seasons, and in 1952 won 24 games and was the AL's MVP. Shantz was never really healthy after that season, but did hang around for a long time and usually was pretty effective. We don't know how hard he threw, but his fastball was probably his third-best pitch, after his curve and knuckleball. Shantz once described his fastball as "pretty good," while an article in Baseball Digested said it was "fair." My guess is that Shantz's fastball was, relative to his peers, better than Herrera's.
Another famous short pitcher was 5-8 Roy Face, a forkball specialist who probably was the best reliever in the National League from 1957-67 (roughly speaking).
Of course, everybody was smaller in those days. We get a much smaller list if we look at just the last few decades (and remember, there are more teams now than in the 1950s and '60s). From 1977-2007, there have been only nine pitchers listed at 5-8 or shorter. I remember only three of them.
Fred Norman, 5-8, pitched for the Big Red Machine, and from 1973-79 he won 11, 12, 13 or 14 games every season.
Richie Lewis, 5-6, pitched for the Orioles in 1992, then went to the Marlins in the expansion draft and pitched well for them in '93. I'd completely forgotten that he was short. I remember him for being stocky, and throwing a good overhand curveball.
Knuckleballer Danny Boone -- Daniel Hugh Boone -- was noted for being a distant relative of the Daniel Boone, and also for reaching the majors after starring in the Senior Professional Baseball Association, six years after leaving organized baseball.
So I'll be pulling for Herrera. Not only because he's short, but also because he throws a screwball, a pitch rarely seen in this era (oddly enough, Norman relied on that pitch during his prime). But I'm not setting the bar too high. I'll be thrilled if Herrera throws just one pitch in the majors.