PEORIA, Ariz. ---- In his first season with the club, catcher Ramon Hernandez gave the Padres their best offensive production at the position in almost two decades.
Though limited to 111 games by a knee sprain, Hernandez clubbed 18 home runs to match the total hit by Benito Santiago in his Rookie of the Year campaign of 1987. Hernandez batted a career-best .276, and his 38 RBIs after coming off the disabled list on July 26 trailed only Baltimore's Javy Lopez among catchers during that span.
Nice numbers, to be sure. For Padres pitchers, however, what Hernandez did at the plate paled in comparison with his often-overlooked work behind the plate. In his crouch, they contend, is where he really earned his money.
"If you look at our team last year, our strong suit was pitching, starting and relieving," Padres right-hander Brian Lawrence said. "And Ramon was a major reason for that. He was awesome back there."
Hernandez's reputation as an outstanding receiver and game-caller preceded him from Oakland, where he maximized the considerable talents of Athletics starters Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito while helping the A's reach the playoffs each season between 2000 and 2003. That valuable experience with young pitchers attracted the Padres ---- who boasted their own promising trio in Lawrence, Jake Peavy and Adam Eaton ---- and they pried Hernandez from the A's in November 2003.
He hasn't disappointed. Last season, Hernandez threw out 25.4 percent of would-be base-stealers to rank second in the National League behind Pittsburgh's Jason Kendall. He blocked the plate courageously; in fact, his knee injury occurred when he was bowled over in a collision at home by Toronto's Howie Clark on June 20.
With Hernandez catching, Padres pitchers had a 4.03 ERA, the same as the overall team ERA. The previous two seasons, his catcher's ERA bested Oakland's team ERA by at least 15 points. His 3.48 catcher's ERA in 2003 was the best in the American League since Joe Girardi posted a 3.44 figure for the New York Yankees in 1997.
"He takes pride in his catching," Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley said. "That's what makes the good ones good, is that they take pride in how their pitchers throw. He doesn't let his offense carry over to his defense. Whether he goes 0-for-5 or 4-for-4, he's going to catch the same way and call the same game."
Balsley believes that Hernandez possesses an innate sense for how to interact with pitchers and set up hitters. Asked about this skill, Hernandez deflected credit to former A's pitching coach Rick Peterson, who's now with the New York Mets.
"When I got to the big leagues, I was very young, only 23," said the now 28-year-old Hernandez, a native of Caracas, Venezuela. "I had ideas, but (Peterson) really helped me to see the little things before you play the game ---- how to get prepared, what to watch for when and in what spot. He taught me all that. He opened my mind."
Hernandez prepares for every series by taking more than an hour to break down videotape of the opposing hitters. He then huddles with Balsley, who comes to the meeting armed with his own scouting report and another one from an advance scout. Based on this information, they combine to craft a game plan that Hernandez runs by that day's pitcher for feedback.
"You can have the plan going into a game, but hitters adjust," Balsley said. "They know how you're going to try to pitch them. Ramon has a pretty good feel for calling a game."
Added Lawrence: "He's solid behind the plate. He's a good defender and a nice target. But he also has an idea what he's doing back there. He doesn't just throw signs down. He tries to set guys up and does a good job."
He does such a good job, apparently, that Peavy campaigned for the Padres to lock up Hernandez ---- who will make $4.2 million this season, the final year of his contract ---- when he clinched the league ERA title last October.
"I would not have done this without him," Peavy said at the time. "I talked to Oakland's pitchers, and they were very upset when he left. He comes to play every day, and it's incredible how prepared he is. We need him around for a while."
I was always an advocate of the re-sign Hernandez movement, but his decision to get surgery in the middle of a pennant race when the team is struggling and the surgery is not necessary really turns my tides the other way. I don't want a player whose interest is money and not winning on my team; at least with Nevin you knew you were going to get 100%.
Re-sign Giles before you re-sign Hernandez. Catchers may be harder to find, but Giles is out there everyday posting MVP like numbers and top-three win shares totals. Maybe George Kottaras will be ready by '06, who knows? Peavy went straight from AA to the majors and Stauffer, though he has struggled recently, took only one year in the minors.
Fick isn't the answer, neither is David Ross, but even so, I no longer want Hernandez back.
davidmarver wrote:I was always an advocate of the re-sign Hernandez movement, but his decision to get surgery in the middle of a pennant race when the team is struggling and the surgery is not necessary really turns my tides the other way. I don't want a player whose interest is money and not winning on my team; at least with Nevin you knew you were going to get 100%.