Hernandez adds another dimension to Rockies

Hernandez adds another dimension to Rockies

Hernandez adds another dimension to Rockies
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Sometimes a fellow needs someone to lift his spirits, but there are times when his spirits are high and he needs someone to fly with him. Rockies catcher Ramon Hernandez called a smiling Esmil Rogers over to his locker on Sunday afternoon and floated along with him.

Rogers had pitched an electric ninth inning in a victory over the Reds and had every right to relive it. There was Hernandez going over pitches in enthusiastic Spanish, even rising to his feet, picking up a bat and pantomiming the baffled reaction of a hitter.

Hernandez, 36, signed a two-year contract with the Rockies this past winter, and has embraced the mentoring part of his role. Rockies veterans Rafael Betancourt, a boyhood friend and teammate in Venezuela, and Jason Giambi, who played for the Athletics when Hernandez broke in late in the 1999 season, told management at the end of last season that Hernandez would be a wonderful fit for a staff populated with young pitchers.

The special time Hernandez spent with Rogers is one of several instances where he displayed the personality that his old friends advertised.

"These kids are young, but they've been pitching one or two years in the big leagues already," Hernandez sad. "They know it's going to be tough. This is a long season. It gets you really tired mentally and body-wise. It takes a lot of energy."

Hernandez doesn't mind offering his energy to anyone who needs it.

On March 8, left-hander Drew Pomeranz never found the strike zone before his outing against the Royals and Hernandez sensed frustration. Hernandez figured there was nothing he could do about Pomeranz's pitches, but could lift his spirits.

"I said, 'Look, the game hasn't even started yet and you're like, 'Oh, I don't feel good,'" Hernandez said. "Mentally, you're already down one. It's a negative from the start. Don't think like that. If you don't feel comfortable, don't try to do too much. Just look at the glove. Imagine there's no hitter there. Just try to throw the baseball to the glove. Figure out how to pitch.

"If your breaking ball isn't working, we figure out how to pitch without the breaking ball. We might need to use just two pitches, or maybe just one. As long as you locate it well, I think we're still in good shape. He got it. And later in the game his breaking ball got good. He was hitting the glove. I noticed."

On March 19, young starter Juan Nicasio was electric but erratic with the location of his slider. Hernandez figured he needed to be technical rather than inspirational. Nicasio took his catcher's advice on body positioning and release point and had a standout outing.

Hernandez also has put up decent offensive numbers. He finished 2010 with a .297 batting average in 97 games, and posted a .282 average and 12 home runs in 91 games last season. Both years were with the Reds.

"There has been more than once that he's sent me back to an office, depending upon which uniform that he was wearing on the other side of the field, very disappointed," said Rockies manager Jim Tracy, who said the key is limiting Hernandez's number of games the way the Reds did. "He's a part of that element as far as the length to our lineup beyond Todd Helton. This guy takes great at-bats.

"And when you sit there and he's catching, there's a real sense of calm to this guy."

Hernandez has offered that calm and his experience to younger catchers, especially Wilin Rosario, Jordan Pacheco and Wilkin Castillo, who entered camp with a grand total of 59 games in the Majors.

"He says just come to Spring Training prepared and take everything day by day, and never be afraid to help somebody else," Pacheco said.

That's different from the experience Hernandez recalls when he broke in with the Athletics. He would end up supplanting A.J. Hinch as the starting catcher, without the aid of mentoring from a veteran player.

"He wasn't going to help me a lot because we were fighting for the same spot," Hernandez said. "No one helped, because I was the youngest, but I was the one playing every day."

Hinch, now assistant general manager of the Padres, said there were no hard feelings. It was just he wasn't in a position to teach.

"He and I were in A-ball together," Hinch said. "And then we started leapfrogging each other. Then I got to the big leagues first and he was behind. Then he got to the big leagues and that probably sent me in a trade to Kansas City. It wasn't the young rookie and the mentor.

"But it helps when you're good people. To me, there was never any animosity. That was the blessing to all that. Ramon and I had a good relationship and continue to have a good relationship."

Hernandez said he has no qualms about reaching out to catchers who could eventually supplant him because he believes catching is not about measuring yourself against another player. It's about measuring the game against the all-telling scoreboard.

The Rockies dealt the cerebral Chris Iannetta to the Angels after last season and needed a leader behind the plate. The Rockies are hoping that Hernandez brings the intuition and winning spirit that they believe they've lacked since Yorvit Torrealba, the No. 1 catcher for the National League championship squad in 2007 and a playoff squad in 2009, left as a free agent.

Already, the Rockies see Hernandez calling signals to control the running game and set the defense even before signs come from the bench.

"What the scoreboard says will tell you how to call the game," Hernandez said. "If your pitcher has a lot of pitches, you have to try to get quick innings, save your bullpen, pick a lot of stuff up. You have to know when the hitter is trying to put the ball in play.

"Then you've got to relax, don't show anybody that you're tense. You're the one that has control of the game."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.