Hernandez helps young hurlers
By Paul Daugherty • email@example.com • May 6, 2009
Reds pitchers are throwing up zeroes like they’re the back end of Warren Buffett’s paycheck. Four shutouts in six games? The best team ERA in baseball? The Cincinnati Reds? Time to pack up the Truckster, move to the cave in Montana and wait for the end of the world.
The club has come up with a creative solution for not scoring many runs. Don’t let the other guys score at all. It’s a pretty good strategy.
Ramon Hernandez is a reason. Not a big reason, according to him. “They pitch, they get the credit," he says. Yeah, well, somebody has to catch the shutouts, calm the nerves, acquire the trust and show the confidence. Not with Aaron Harang so much, or Bronson Arroyo. Veteran pitchers know what they know.
With Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto? No question.
As a 24-year-old kid catcher in Oakland in 2000, Hernandez handled a pitching staff that included Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito. That’s like giving the 9-year-old keys to the family Ferrari.
Hernandez didn’t arrive in Cincinnati with a rep for handling pitchers, but he’s got the local Ferrari humming. A big part of it has been the marriage the 33-year-old Hernandez is building with the Reds’ two rising kid stars. And make no mistake, it is a marriage, and it takes all the qualities of a successful union to pull it off: Trust, communication, respect, experience. Either that, or Cueto just throws whatever Hernandez tells him to throw.
“(Cueto) is figuring out how to pitch," Hernandez says. And the catcher is letting him, to a point. Hernandez gives the kid rope, but never enough to hang himself. “He pitches quick: ‘Give me the ball and I throw it.’ I tell him, ‘Don’t get too quick, back off, regroup.’ He has that competitive intensity."
That’s why last year, the word Cueto heard most frequently from his catchers was “tranquilo." Rough translation: Chill out.
The trick for Hernandez is to keep Cueto grounded when he’s on the ledge between tranquilo and not tranquilo. As Aaron Harang explains, “Ramon is letting Cueto learn, to pitch the game he wants to pitch. But he’s also got it in the back of his mind that (he) has to keep an eye on this kid, not let him get too out of control." Cueto and Volquez, “wear their emotions on their sleeves,’’ Harang said. “It can spiral out of control quickly. If your catcher doesn’t recognize it, the wheels come off."
A lot of this is standard catching procedure: Know the pitcher, his mind and his arm. Keep him on task. And it’s not just Cueto and Volquez, but Hernandez’ work with those two is more noticeable.
Spanish is their first language. Volquez’s English is good; Cueto’s is not, or at least not that he reveals publicly. Hernandez can speak to his two prized pupils and know nothing is lost in translation. As David Weathers puts it, “There’s no confusion about what he wants."
Hernandez can call for Cueto’s sinking, two-seam fastball and not get Cueto’s straight, four-seamer. That’s a good trait if you’re not a fan of seeing the other team’s hitters sit on a straight four-seamer and whack it 400 feet.
Hernandez says Volquez “is more laid back" but yet he had to come to Edinson’s rescue Tuesday night in Florida. Up 7-0 heading into the Marlins’ seventh, Volquez got loose and walked the first two hitters of the inning. Hernandez made a trot to the mound to get the marriage back in communication mode. Volquez got back to business and pitched eight shutout innings.
“He walks two right out of the chute," Weathers said, “and you could see his demeanor change. Ramon goes out there and pulls him right back into reality."
The numbers are scary-good. In his last three starts, Cueto has pitched 22 innings and allowed one run. In his last two, Volquez has totaled 16 shutout innings. Behind it all is Hernandez, who takes no credit.
“I can call a great pitch, but they have to execute it," he says. “They work hard, they want to do well. The mentality is most important. I’ve faced a lot of (pitchers) with great stuff that never pitched in the big leagues."
When he was young, the catcher drove a Ferrari. It took him a decade to find another. He has one now. The race is just beginning.