Herrera short in stature, not heart
At 5-foot-6, Reds reliever surviving in big leagues on stuff and guts
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By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine
I am 5-foot-5. This is relevant for one reason: On Wednesday, I stood next to Danny Herrera. He is 1 inch taller than I. And he is a good relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds.
"I'm 5-6," Herrera said. "My first year of professional ball, I listed myself as 5-8, but they had me at 5-8, 145 pounds. That made me feel like I was some frail guy, which I'm not. I weigh 165, 170 pounds. I used to lie about my height, but I don't do that anymore. I am 5-foot-6."
Herrera is the shortest major league pitcher -- according to listings, which aren't always accurate -- since 5-6 Bobby Shantz, who retired after the 1964 season with 119 victories and an American League Most Valuable Player award in 1952. Herrera, 24, is no Shantz, but as a left-handed specialist, he has a 1.96 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 23 innings.
Herrera has held left-handed batters to a .216 average and .351 slugging percentage.
"The first time I saw him was last year during the week of the Kentucky Derby, and we figured he would have to leave the team that Saturday to go ride one of the horses," said Nationals outfielder Adam Dunn, who was Herrera's teammate last season in Cincinnati. "I've never faced him. But I haven't faced anyone his size since I was 11 or 12 years old."
Herrera has heard it all and seen it all.
"The best one was last year," he said. "I was at [Triple-A] Louisville. One of our catchers, Albert Colina, who is a really big guy, picked me up and put me in his lap as he sat in the bullpen. Then he stuck his arm inside my jacket, and up my back. He wouldn't let me go. I thought, 'What is he doing?' Then, whenever I would talk, he would move his lips. Everyone was cracking up. He was the ventriloquist, and I was puppet. That was the best one."
One of the great beauties of baseball is that the players come in all shapes and sizes more than in any other major sport. Even pitchers. Longtime player and manager Sparky Anderson once said, "There's nothing better than a big pitcher," but the game has had its share of short or small pitchers, including, among others, Clark Griffith, Shantz, Whitey Ford, Ron Guidry, John Franco, Billy Wagner, Mike Hampton, Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum and Pedro Martinez. In his first year of pro ball, Martinez weighed 138 pounds and threw 93 mph. Legend has it that Steve Dalkowski, who never played in the major leagues, was the hardest thrower ever. He was 5-9.
"It's genetics; you are born to throw a baseball. You are born with how hard you can throw," said Tom House, a former major league pitcher and pitching coach who knows more about the throwing of a baseball than anyone alive. "Big, tall pitchers, the levers are longer and require more strength to get the middle finger to the release point. Actually, it is easier for a smaller person. I use the golf analogy. How many 7-foot golfers are out there?"
Wagner, who is maybe 5-10 and throws 100 mph, once said, "It's neat for these bigger guys to come up and say, 'How are you doing what you're doing?' That's the biggest question people ask me, 'How do you throw so hard?' I work a little bit, and God has blessed me. Did you ever see guys' eyes pop out when they see what's coming out of that arm?"
Only in baseball can Wagner throw even harder than Randy Johnson, who is 6-10.
"I received an award at a banquet with Randy in 1999; he had just won the Cy Young," Wagner said. "I'm a huge Randy fan, and he's up there talking about how short I am. He leaves the microphone way high. So when I get up to talk, the mike is over my head."
Herrera knows that feeling very well. When he went to high school, he was 5-5, 140 pounds, with high hopes.
"I have a brother who is 6 feet tall and almost 200 pounds," he said. "My dad is 5-10. I figured I was going to grow at some point. But the height never came."
He was undrafted out of high school but pitched at the University of New Mexico. He was so good during his junior year that a scout told him he would be drafted somewhere between the 20th and 30th rounds.
"I knew that wasn't going to happen," Herrera said. The Rangers selected him in the 45th round of the 2006 draft.
"One of the area scouts made an impassioned plea to take this guy, you know, when we give the area guys a chance to take a flier on a guy, a gut pick," said Buck Showalter, then the Rangers' manager. "He said, 'He has an out pitch, he's left-handed and has the heart of a lion. We asked, 'What's wrong?'"
"He's 5-6," the scout said.
But the first time Showalter saw Herrera throw, he said, "He will pitch in the big leagues."
That came last season, a year after the Rangers had sent Herrera to Cincinnati in the Josh Hamilton trade. In his first major league game, he entered with the bases loaded and no outs against the Phillies. He got Shane Victorino to ground out to the shortstop and then, after intentionally walking Chase Utley, struck out Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell.
"The little guy has big guts," Reds pitching coach Dick Pole said. "He's not afraid of anything."
He's not afraid to laugh. "When I first got to the big leagues, we went to Minute Maid Park in Houston," Herrera said. "I went to the players entrance, and they wouldn't let me in. They said, 'Your entrance is over there.' They thought I worked at the park, like in concessions. So I walked all around the ballpark and couldn't find the entrance they told me about. Finally I said, 'This is where I'm supposed to go in.' And the same guy said, 'No, I told you that your entrance is over there.' Sometimes, it's good to flash your ID card."
Reds infielder/outfielder Jerry Hairston laughed.
"The first time I saw him, I thought he was the bucket guy, you know, the bat boy," he said. "Then I saw him get on the mound, and I said, 'What?' We used to kid around with him, but not anymore because he's really good. He's got the biggest heart on the team. He's not a 95 mph guy, but guys don't like facing him. Hitters like to be comfortable. They like familiarity. They don't get that looking at him standing on top of the mound. He is a carrot in front of their face. They want to swing as hard as they can against him, then they strike out, or roll over and hit a ground ball to third. He's gone under the radar … literally."
Herrera throws an 84-85 mph fastball that he always sinks or cuts. He throws a slurve, a changeup and his out pitch, a screwball, which almost no one throws but Herrera has been throwing since 2005. He needed another pitch because he lacked velocity.
"It took me a year and a half to get it in the strike zone consistently," he said. "Hitters don't often see one."
Nor do hitters see anyone his size standing on the mound.
"I get some strange reactions from hitters when they see me for the first time," he said. "But to me, it's not about size. I'm just another pitcher who is trying to get the hitters out."
He is not just another pitcher.
"He is rare," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "He has a big heart and an iron stomach. There is a super athlete in that little body. He can pitch, he can field his position and he can hit. I needed someone who can bunt. I asked him, and he said, 'Of course I can bunt.' He's a great kid. I've patted him on the butt after he pitches really well. It has been a long time since I've reached that low to pat a butt. And you know what his nickname is, don't you?"
Baker smiled and said, "Shorty."