Daniel Herrera Joins 'From Phenom To The Farm:' Episode 69
During his time in a big league bullpen, lefthander Daniel Herrera got hitters out with craftiness and a filthy screwball. His fastball barely sat in the low-80s—blowing hitters away wasn’t in Herrera’s repertoire.
In high school, though? Herrera was trying to throw cheddar.
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“I was a much different pitcher—if you would’ve asked me at 18 I would’ve said I was a flamethrower,” said Herrera. “I was just trying to throw hard and throw the biggest curveballs (…) but I maybe topped out at 86-87 in high school.”
A fastball hitting 86-87 in high school isn’t slow, but for a guy listed at 5’ 6” with zero physical projection left, it wasn’t going to net Herrera nationwide looks. The diminutive lefthander was lightly recruited, garnering looks only from local junior colleges or NAIA schools near his hometown of Odessa, TX, until six shutout innings in the Connie Mack World Series caught the eye of Rich Alday, then the head coach at University of New Mexico.
Alday didn’t see height as much as he saw a kid who could just get guys out throwing at any velocity. Herrera signed with New Mexico, his only Division 1 offer.
He learned quickly that 86-87 straight over the top doesn’t fare as well in the Mountain West. Adjustments needed to be made, and quickly. Herrera dropped his arm slot and leaned into learning to move the ball and locate his pitches.
“Just trying to find the strike zone with the sinker was the first thing on the list,” said Herrera. “But, at that point too, as soon as I went to that lower slot my curveball vanished.”
Regardless of if he had a reliable breaking ball or not, Herrera slotted into UNM’s rotation as a freshman, but spent his first two seasons getting hit around as he learned how to pitch and develop a pitch mix. It was during this time, when in search of a better change-up, that he developed his screwball.
Armed with the screwball and a keen knowledge of how to keep hitters off-balance, Herrera took off during his junior season. He turned in one of the greatest season’s in New Mexico baseball history, garnering Mountain West co-Pitcher of the Year honors and catching the eye of both MLB scouts and the late Hall of Famer (and then-San Diego State head coach) Tony Gwynn.
“I remember shaking his hand after the series, and he said something to the effect of ‘Go get them in pro ball, kid,’” said Herrera. “To hear something like that from someone like him, it was just one of those moments that I won’t forget.”
Despite stellar results, the Rangers signed Herrera for just $20,000 as their 45th round pick in the 2006 draft, but he yet again outpitched his stature and draft position, carrying a 1.35 ERA over 53.1 innings in the High-A California League during his debut. He reached Double-A the following year, and after being dealt to Cincinnati during the 2007 offseason, Herrera broke into the big league bullpen with the ’08 Reds, striking out Ryan Howard during his debut outing.
He turned in a promising rookie season in 2009, but bounced back and forth from Cincy and Triple-A Louisville during 2010. 2012 Tommy John surgery sapped his effectiveness and sent Herrera to the independent Atlantic League to try to get his career back on track. Three years of middling Indy ball results (including a season as a lefty knuckleballer) told him that it was time to hang up the cleats.
“It’s the flood of emotions that the one thing you’ve done your entire life and the one thing you’re really good at, you can’t do anymore,” said Herrera.
Herrera found himself faced with the same conundrum as many athletes whose playing days come to a close: figuring out what to do now. As unique as he was on the mound, his post-playing move might’ve been even more so. With some prodding from his then-girlfriend, now wife, Herrera enrolled in art school.
Like he had with baseball, Herrera threw himself entirely into perfecting a new craft, finding the same passion with a pen or brush as he had in making hitters chase a screwball diving out of the zone—except at first, when it came to his new love, he preferred keeping his old love separate.
“I was being stubborn again once I was out of baseball—I didn’t want anything to do with baseball. I kinda wanted to make art and be inspired in different ways,” said Herrera. “I was looking not for baseball work, but maybe looking for editorial work, doing political cartoons (…) but that itch of baseball just kept gnawing at me.”
Herrera works now drawing characters in multiple platforms, working in music magazines, cartoons, and of course, baseball. His website (danielrayherrera.com) showcases his wide creative variety of both baseball and non-baseball artwork, including a print he presented personally to Astros manager Dusty Baker this past summer.
While his transition to art might seem completely out of left field, for a guy who spent years finding creative ways to get hitters out, it’s fitting.
On the latest episode of ‘From Phenom to the Farm,’ former big league lefthander Daniel Herrera joins to discuss his journey from lightly recruited high schooler to big leaguer, and his post-baseball art career.