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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #80 Orlando Hernandez

Hats off to you, El Duque. You were damn entertaining to watch.

Do the El Duque
Do the El Duque
Al Bello/Getty Images

Name: Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: October 11, 1965 (Villa Clara, Cuba)
Yankee Years: 1998-2002, 2004
Primary number: 26
Yankee statistics: 61-40, 3.96 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 136 GS, 876 1/3 IP, 703 K, 8 CG, 86 ERA-, 96 FIP-, 19.1 rWAR, 14.1 fWAR

Biography

Orlando Hernandez might only be 80th on this list of Top 100 Yankees, but chances are he would make at least a Top 20 of most exciting players in the team's history. A mysterious maestro on the mound, Al Leiter once described him as "an experienced pro who could throw any pitch in any count with great control." The man known as "El Duque" could seemingly do it all, but both his advanced age upon finally coming to the United States and his inconsistent performance limit him to only six seasons in pinstripes and a nine-year MLB career. Nonetheless, the fans who saw El Duque pitch will never forget him.

Duque Eephus

Cuban star forced into exile

For quite awhile, El Duque's actual birth year was not actually known for certain. When he first joined the Yankees, he said he was born in 1969, but later it became evident that he was, in fact, born in 1965 and thus didn't become a Yankee until he turned 32. Regardless, he was born on October 11, 1965 to Cuban pitcher Arnaldo Hernandez and Maria Cruz. Although well known throughout the country, his dad (also nicknamed "El Duque") did not play much of a role in El Duque's upbringing. He did however, father another son a little over nine years later with another woman, Miriam Carreras. That son's name was Livan Hernandez, and El Duque would have a close relationship with his half-brother, who of course also became a pitching phenom.

Growing up with his older brother Arnaldo Jr. in a small home was not ideal for the future pitching great. There wasn't much schooling in his childhood, but El Duque certainly learned the game of baseball. He was clearly an intelligent kid, as he developed and perfected a complex pitching motion while also adding a potent arsenal of pitches. Once his reputation spread, it did not take too long for El Duque to be added to the perennial powerhouse Cuban national baseball team.

El Duque won his first gold medal at age 22 with the victorious 1988 Baseball World Cup squad and gradually added several more golds in numerous competitions over the next seven years, highlighted by the Cuban national team winning the gold medal in baseball at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. As if that weren't enough, El Duque was also prominent on the most successful Cuban league baseball team, the Havana Industriales. He was a star there too, as he was the team's ace while also getting to play with his brothers Arnaldo and Livan.

Tragically, he only had one season with Arnaldo, who passed away suddenly in 1994 as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage. El Duque's life was further complicated when Livan defected from the Cuban national team late in 1995. As a result of his association with Livan, El Duque was suspended from Cuban ball, left off the '96 Olympic roster, and eventually banned entirely from the Cuban National Series league. With nowhere to play, El Duque now basically had just one choice--defect himself or never play organized ball again. After watching Livan triumph in 1997 with the Marlins while winning both the NLCS and World Series MVP, it removed any doubt as to El Duque's future plans.

Playoff hero in New York

Through the assistance of some shady dealings with his agent, Joe Cubas, El Duque defected from Cuba two months after the World Series and eventually was granted residency in Costa Rica. Now free to negotiate with any team, the Yankees and newly-christened general manager Brian Cashman came calling. Following negotiations, El Duque and the Yankees agreed on a four-year, $6.6 million contract, a deal which I recently ranked the eighth-best Yankees free agent contract of all-time. The Yankees sure received some incredible value from that contract, as the article noted:

On a pure value basis, few contracts have been better than the comparatively measly $6.6 million invested in El Duque back in 1998... Minor leaguers could do nothing with the (possibly) 32-year-old rookie's repertoire, and when David Cone had to miss a start due to a bite on the finger from his mother's Jack Russell terrier, he got his shot. He pitched so effectively that the Yankees couldn't remove him from the rotation, and he recorded a 3.13 ERA, 3.53 FIP, and 131 strikeouts in 21 starts during his first season.

Although the '98 Yankees romped to 114 victories, they trailed the ALCS two games to one against the Indians, and they were forced to ask El Duque to come up big for them in Game 4. He did just that, twirling seven innings of shutout ball, the first of seven straight victories the Yankees notched against the Indians and Padres, never losing another game en route to the World Series title.

El Duque was a fascinating addition to the rotation, dazzling hitters but also mystifying his manager and his teammates. On the day of that fateful Game 4, Joe Torre thought that he might be nervous, but in fact, El Duque was not at all afraid of the spotlight. Torre found him at a local Cleveland restaurant, pretending to serve dishes and humoring the patrons. On many occasions though, he bickered with his catcher, Jorge Posada, on his pitch selection, and once even cursed at Luis Sojo when Sojo asked him to stand during the National Anthem. Then, there were the times when he would absolutely baffle his teammates, like when he called all his infielders into the mound and said nothing, unless one counts stomping on the mound a few times as saying something.

Despite El Duque's idiosyncrasies, he remained a steady presence in their rotation throughout the "three-peat" from 1998 through 2000. He was a fine pitcher in the regular season, but he seemed to be even better when the spotlight of the playoffs were on. The big start against the Indians was just the beginning of his postseason excellence. The Padres had no answer for him in the World Series that year, nor did the Rangers in his Division Series start the next season. He dominated the Red Sox in the '99 taking home ALCS MVP honors with 15 innings of 1.80 ERA ball, then outpitched Hall of Famer Greg Maddux in his World Series opener start against the Braves. El Duque wasn't quite as overpowering in the 2000 playoffs, but the Yankees still won in four of the five games he made an appearance. Those three years cemented El Duque as a Yankees cult hero.

The '01 campaign was a rockier one for El Duque, as a bad toe sprain kept him off the mound for several months and he struggled when he actually did make starts. He shook it off to pitch well in two of his three starts that postseason, most notably when he kept the Yankees in the game against Curt Schilling in Game 4 of the World Series, a contest they famously won thanks to late-game homer heroics from Tino Martinez and Derek Jeter. Alas, that year didn't end in a parade, and injuries limited him again in 2002. He was far more effective that year than in '01, but a blown game in the playoffs against the Angels haunted him as the Yankees fell in the first round. At first, it seemed that it would be his last start as a Yankee, as they sent him away to the Expos in a three-team deal during the 2002-03 off-season. A rotator cuff injury led to surgery, and he never threw a pitch for Montreal.

However, El Duque's career was not at an end. He surprisingly returned to the Yankees in 2004 and after successfully rehabbing in the minors from his surgery, he re-joined the starting rotation in mid-July. He provided a boost to the rotation and the Yankees won their seventh consecutive AL East title. This time, a five-inning, three-run start in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Red Sox would be the last start he would make in pinstripes, as the Yankees blew the series and El Duque departed in free agency.

One last hurrah

Having rejuvenated his career with a successful '04 season, El Duque signed with the White Sox for the 2005 campaign. While Chicago got off to a fantastic start that they never looked back from, it wasn't as good for El Duque. He had a 5.12 ERA in 24 games (22 starts) and was more hittable than ever, with a career-worst 9.6 H/9. The White Sox won the AL Central, but they left him out of the playoff rotation, one that featured another Cuban star who was previously a Yankee, Jose Contreras. Considering how dangerous the rotation of Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, and Jon Garland proved to be that postseason, it's hard to blame the White Sox for slighting El Duque. It didn't prevent him from coming up huge on the big stage one more time.

The White Sox were up two games to none on the defending champion Red Sox in the Division Series, and they led them 4-3 in the sixth inning of Game 3 at Fenway Park. However, the dangerous Boston lineup had knocked Garcia out and loaded the bases against reliever Damaso Marte. Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen called on El Duque to bail them out and stop the Red Sox from seizing any momentum to get back into the series. What followed was amazing and vintage El Duque: a Jason Varitek foul out, a Tony Graffanino pop-up, and a swing and a miss from Johnny Damon. No runs scored, Chicago held the lead, and they went on to win the World Series.

El Duque hovered around the game for a few more years and even spent about two months with his brother Livan again pitching in the Diamondbacks rotation. However, despite some relatively effective pitching, it was clear that he was wearing down--hardly surprising for someone who pitched past age 40. After a year and a half with the Mets, El Duque's career ended in 2007. He tried to recover from '08 foot surgery to pitch again in the majors, but a couple minor league stints with various teams went in vain.

El Duque officially retired in 2011, and he returned to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers' Day in both 2013 and 2014. He'll always be welcomed back to the Bronx by the home crowd; El Duque was just one of those special pitchers and fan favorites who comes around every once in a while. Keep on doing the El Duque.

Andrew's rank: 81
Tanya's rank: 82
Community rank: 65.9
WAR rank: 82.5

Season Stats

Year Age Tm W L ERA FIP G GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP BK WP ERA- FIP- rWAR fWAR
1998 32 NYY 12 4 3.13 3.53 21 21 3 1 141 113 53 49 11 52 1 131 6 2 5 69 80 3.6 3.4
1999 33 NYY 17 9 4.12 4.45 33 33 2 1 214.1 187 108 98 24 87 2 157 8 0 4 87 95 4.3 3.2
2000 34 NYY 12 13 4.51 4.83 29 29 3 0 195.2 186 104 98 34 51 2 141 6 0 1 93 102 3.2 2.4
2001 35 NYY 4 7 4.85 5.52 17 16 0 0 94.2 90 51 51 19 42 1 77 5 0 0 111 127 1.5 0.0
2002 36 NYY 8 5 3.64 3.83 24 22 0 0 146 131 63 59 17 36 2 113 8 0 8 82 89 3.7 3.2
2004 38 NYY 8 2 3.30 3.90 15 15 0 0 84.2 73 31 31 9 36 0 84 5 0 3 73 88 2.8 1.8
NYY (6 yrs) 61 40 3.96 4.35 139 136 8 2 876.1 780 410 386 114 304 8 703 38 2 21 86 96 19.1 14.1

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

BR Bullpen

ESPN 30 for 30 documentary: "Brothers in Exile" (must-watch if you can find it)

Olney, Buster. Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty. New York: Ecco, 2004.

Other Top 100 Yankees