One day when he was a boy, Kelvin Herrera saw a photograph of his two baseball idols in a newspaper. He clipped the picture and taped it to his bedroom closet in the Dominican Republic. So each morning when he woke up, he looked at Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens.
“They dominated on the mound,” Herrera said. “They were superstars.”
Herrera, who is 5 feet 10 inches, would never grow as tall as Clemens, but as a teenager he showed signs of arm speed like Martinez. Rene Francisco, the Royals executive overseeing their Latin American operations, met Herrera at a tryout camp in the winter of 2006. Herrera was not invited, but he hung around and threw for some scouts afterward.
Francisco liked Herrera’s potential and appreciated his confidence. Herrera told Francisco that he might be short, but he had a big heart. “I will not make you guys look bad,” Herrera told the Kansas City scouts, and in one of his first acts with the Royals, Francisco signed Herrera for about $15,000.
“He’s always been a fighter,” Francisco said. “We’re just glad to have him.”
The investment has paid massive dividends. Herrera debuted with the Royals as a 21-year-old in 2011. He overcame a minor-league demotion in 2013 to become the first wave of the team’s late-game bullpen formula last season.
On Tuesday night at Great American Ball Park, he will stand among the best of the American League as an All-Star for the first time.
Manager Ned Yost chose Herrera for the game. He considered it a reward for Herrera’s performance in 2014, when he posted a 1.41 ERA in the regular season and a 1.80 ERA in the postseason, and a validation of his performance in 2015. Herrera entered Friday with a 2.08 ERA and 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, credible enough numbers for Yost to bring him to Cincinnati along with his coaching staff and six other Royals.
Herrera throws the hardest fastball in the American League, a heater clocked at a 97.9 mph average heading into Friday’s games. He incited the ire of observers when he threw behind Oakland third baseman Brett Lawrie during a weekend-long feud in April. Herrera infuriated Lawrie when he pointed as his head after his ejection. Many interpreted his message to Lawrie as a threat: “Think about it.”
For a few days, Herrera was cast as a head-hunter. But he has hit only one batter in 2015. He has never hit more than three in a season. He concentrates on forming a line with his left elbow toward the catcher, so he can maintain his delivery and allow his fastball to flourish.
“The best thing about him is his command,” starter Edinson Volquez said. “There’s not too many people who can throw hard and at the same time have good command of their fastball. That makes him more special.”
He signed with Kansas City almost as an accident, a product of the proximity of the team’s Dominican academy in Salcedo to Herrera’s hometown of Tenares. In the winter of 2006, Francisco and Latin American scouting coordinator Orlando Estevez organized a tryout camp there.
Estevez trained a radar gun at the pitchers. There was a short, scrawny kid behind him who kept asking how hard the other boys were throwing. He told Estevez the Royals should watch him throw after the tryouts.
“That kid was Kelvin Herrera,” Francisco said.
After the camp ended, Francisco and Estevez left the field to discuss the day. A few other scouts stayed back to watch the local kids like Herrera play. A scout soon found Francisco and told him there was a player he needed to see.
Francisco tracked down Herrera as he was getting into his car with his buscone. Francisco asked Herrera if he could throw 10 pitches for him off the mound. Herrera put his spikes back on and grabbed a ball. He couldn’t have weighed more than 140 pounds, Francisco recalled.
“I don’t know how hard he was throwing,” Francisco said. “He might have been throwing 87, 88 mph. But his arm was really, really quick. The quickness of his arm, that’s what got our attention.”
The Royals signed Herrera that day, Francisco said. Herrera stayed at the team’s academy until they brought him to the States for the 2008 season. Herrera joined the team’s Class A affiliate in Burlington. He spent the next three years at that same level, beset by arm problems.
Herrera tried starting for a while, but his elbow did not cooperate. He pitched in only one game in 2009. He pitched in eight in 2010.
“At one point, he wanted to quit the game, because nothing was positive for him,” Francisco said. “I didn’t know that. He told me that after the fact.”
Herrera turned a corner after 2010. The team shifted him into the bullpen full-time. Herrera stopped throwing his curveball, which he believed placed undue stress on his elbow. He maintained his remarkable fastball velocity, while developing a useful change-up as a complement.
From there, Herrera made a rapid ascension to the majors. During the World Baseball Classic in 2013, he had the chance to meet his hero, Pedro Martinez.
He told Martinez he was the greatest pitcher he ever saw. You can be like me, Martinez replied.
“He’s a role model,” Herrera said. “You want to be like him. When you’re pitching, you want to be like him, or Clemens or Curt Schilling, John Smoltz.”
Baseball Reference compares players with others in history at their current age. For Kelvin Herrera, who is 25, those players include: Jeff Reardon, Steve Bedrosian, Bobby Thigpen.
Strikeouts per nine innings
Walks and hits per nine innings
Hits per nine innings