Underrated Pittsburgh Pirates in Franchise History: Ramon Hernandez


Before every good closer, there’s a good set up man. In the early-to-mid 1970’s, Ramon Hernandez was that set up man for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have had some very effective relief pitchers in their history. You probably know Kent Tekulve, Roy Face, Dave Giusti, Mark Melancon, and a few others. But before every effective closer, there’s an effective set up man. When Giusti was getting the bulk of save opportunities in the early-to-mid 1970’s, lefty Ramon Hernandez was the one getting the game to the 9th inning.

Hernandez’s path to becoming one of the best relief pitchers in Pittsburgh Pirates history was a winding road. Before the 1959 season, he was actually signed by the Pirates as an amateur free agent. But after two sub-par years in the organization, the California Angels purchased his contract from the Pirates. Then in the 1966-1967 off-season, he was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the Rule 5 Draft. He finally made it to the Bigs, pitching 51.2 innings of 4.18 ERA, 3.64 FIP and 1.43 WHIP ball.

He was eventually removed from the 40-man roster again, and selected by the Chicago Cubs in the next Rule 5 Draft. He only pitched 9 innings with Chicago in 1968 before his contract was purchased by the St. Louis Cardinals. However, after not reaching the MLB level, the Cardinals released Hernandez at the end of March 1970. Hernandez then went to the Mexican League for the 1970 season amd have pitched well enough for the Pittsburgh Pirates to pick him back up for 1971. The Bucs traded minor league pitcher Danilo Rivas to the Mexican League team Hernandez was playing for.

Hernandez spent most of the 1971 season at Triple-A, pitching to overall sub-par numbers. He had a 4.02 ERA, and 1.45 WHIP through 47 innings. However, the Bucs gave Hernandez a short stint in the Majors, and he was extremely impressive in 12.1 innings. He gave up just one earned run, five hits, twp walks, and he struck out seven. Of the five hits he allowed, only one went for extra bases, and it was a double.

In 1972, Hernandez would go on to establish himself as a dominant force out of the bullpen. Hernandez split closer duties with Giusti, saving 14 games. In 70 innings the relief pitcher posted a 1.67 ERA, 2.68 FIP, and 1.03 WHIP. He also gave up just three home runs. Despite Hernandez’s low strikeout rate of just 16.5%, he walked only 7.7% of all the batters he faced.

For the next three seasons Hernandez became a top relief pitcher in the MLB. From 1973-1975, Hernandez posted a 2.67 ERA, 2.82 FIP, and 1.22 WHIP. In comparison, now Hall of Fame closer Rollie Fingers was not all that far ahead of Hernandez in these three seasons.

Fingers had a 2.51 ERA, 2.56 FIP, and 1.09 WHIP, albeit, in a handful of more innings since Fingers was a starter early on in his career. Hernandez had given up just eight long balls in 222.1 innings of work, including none across 64 innings in 1975. The left-handed set up man recorded 3 fWAR, which ranked 12th among all relief pitchers. Hernandez might not have been a strikeout pitcher, but he walked only 7.6% of all the batter’s he faced.

After 1975, Hernandez pitched 43 more innings, but was not nearly as good as he was in 1972-1975. He gave up three home runs, and walked 16 batters to go with 17 strikeouts. His contract was purchased by another familiar team, the Cubs, in September 1976. His time in Chicago did not last long, as he was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 1977 for Bobby Darwin. Ramon Hernandez played his last MLB game on July 27, 1977.

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Sadly, Ramon passed away on February 4, 2009 at just 68 years old. However, his work with the Pittsburgh Pirates should not be forgotten. In Bucs history, his 3.7 fWAR ranks 8th among all Pirates relief pitchers. Despite having fewer innings pitched, he still has a higher fWAR than a more modern-day lefty set up man, Tony Watson. Among all Pirates’ relief pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched, his 2.51 ERA ranks 5th, and his 2.90 FIP ranks 3rd. Both of those are better than Tekulve and Face. Even though Ramon Hernandez isn’t known nearly as much as many of the other names I’ve said, he was in their league, or better.