SURPRISE, Ariz. — Perhaps you saw the Harlem Shake video that Royals pitcher Luis Mendoza recently posted to Twitter.
The guy on the left, as the video opens, is reliever Kelvin Herrera, and whatever you think of his dance moves, his confidence and joy are at once irrepressible and unmistakable.
What a difference a year makes.
Herrera established his bonafides last season by compiling a 2.35 ERA in 76 appearances after pitching his way onto the club as a rookie in spring training.
Some context: Herrera’s ERA was the lowest among American League pitchers who worked at least 80 innings, and only one AL pitcher, Yankees lefty Boone Logan, appeared in more games.
“Do you see me smiling more?” Herrera asked. “I feel that, too. I’m confident, but I’m trying to be more focused.”
Others see that confidence, too.
“Last year,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said, “he had to come in here and really pitch well to make the club. He pitched his way on the team. He knows he’s on the team now.”
Manager Ned Yost added, “Experience and confidence do that when you’ve got that type of stuff. You always think you can do it. But until you know you can do it, it’s a difference. He figured it out about the halfway point that he knows he can do it.”
Herrera, 23, felt sufficiently secure in his status that he didn’t hesitate when asked to pitch for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.
“I’m excited because I’m representing my country,” he said. “It’s a great honor for me. When I was, like, 16 years old, they held the first one. I was still a little kid, and I was dreaming to play in that. Now, it’s becoming a reality.”
Herrera departs Sunday after making three spring appearances.
“I think I’m ready,” he said. “I’ve also thrown a couple of sides (bullpen workouts) and a couple of BPs. I think my arm is ready to go.”
That Herrera has already pushed the radar gun to 98-100 mph validates that belief although, as teammate Danny Duffy noted, “He can throw 100 just rolling out of bed.”
It also points to Herrera’s chief goal this spring: Hone his curveball.
“I want to be able to mix that in more with my other pitches,” he said. “I want to throw it more often. I want to gain enough confidence in my breaking ball to do that. I’ve been throwing it a lot (in practice), and I feel good about it.”
It’s just a matter of time.
“It’s there,” Eiland said. “It was there last year. It was just a case last year that he was afraid – he didn’t want to hurt his arm. He’s not going to hurt his arm. But the only way to prove that is to throw it. He’s past that. That’s part of his (arsenal).”
Herrera represents one of the early successes in the Royals’ increased emphasis to scout Latin America since Dayton Moore became general manager midway through the 2006 season.
The Royals signed Herrera as a 16-year-old, and he flashed early potential at the organization’s Dominican academy and Class A Burlington – a combined 10-5 record with a 1.27 ERA in 25 games – before forearm soreness threatened to derail his career.
For two years.
The Royals shifted Herrera to bullpen duty in 2011 on a full-time basis, and all the tumblers clicked into place. He zoomed through the top three minor-league classifications before making his major-league debut on Sept. 21 against Detroit.
The following spring, the Royals had Herrera ticketed for Class AAA Omaha – he only spent 14 games there in 2011 – but he pitched so well there was no way to cut him.
“We just really liked his stuff,” Yost said. “We knew the game would speed up on him. So we had to ease him into these situations until he got that confidence, that inner knowledge that no matter what (situation) they put me in, I can get out of it.”
The final hurdle last year was a tendency to hyperventilate in the clutch, but Yost dealt with the issue by easing Herrera into those situations. Herrera’s confidence grew. He soon learned to control his emotions – and he got even better.
“I think it’s normal,” he said. “Everyone goes through that, but I’ve learned to control myself a lot better now. But I still have to keep working on it.”
Herrera didn’t permit a homer in his final 69 outings with the Royals, and compiled a 1.52 ERA in 38 appearances after July 5. That growing success was due, largely, to a willingness to throw a mix of pitches rather than to rely solely on his triple-digit fastball.
“You’ve got to trust in what you’re going to throw,” he said. “You’ve got to believe that the pitch is right. You’ve got to compete.”
And now he’s working on perfecting that curve.
“It’s definitely the one pitch that he needs to make a bit of an improvement on and be more consistent with,” Yost said. “He throws strikes with his fastball and has a very good change-up, but he was a tad bit inconsistent with his breaking ball.”
“If he can develop more consistency with his breaking ball, that gives him three above-average pitches that he can get guys out with.”
You’d dance, too, wouldn’t you?