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Cesar Hernandez: Stroking It or Just Getting Lucky?

Cesar Hernandez is a 23 year old 2B/OF for the Phillies. He's hitting .320 with a wRC+ of 116. Should we be getting excited?

Cesar Hernandez TWTwilling a ball to a location where they ain't.
Cesar Hernandez TWTwilling a ball to a location where they ain't.
Rich Schultz

Cesar Hernandez is playing a lot of center field for the Phillies in the latter half of the tire fire 2013 season.  At the start of the year, I knew of Hernandez as a light-hitting second baseman, but I didn't know much beyond that.  He's performing well offensively, with a batting average of .320, an on-base percentage of .386, and a wRC+ of 116.  For a 23 year old in the Majors, that's awesome, right?  The concern I have is that his batting average on balls in play is unsustainably high.  It has come down of late to "merely" .407.  Here is the page for Hernandez.

Hernandez has little power, like almost Ben Revere no power, so his offensive value will come from getting on base, running the bases, and maybe moving runners along from time to time.  His walk rate of 8.4% is encouraging, and not out of line with most of his experiences in the minors.  During 2011 and 2012, when he was being promoted through the system, his walks suffered, but they eventually returned.  He looks to be a "for real" 8 - 10% walk guy, which is a good skill and one that has been largely absent in the big Phillies lately.

His strikeout rate has been manageable, at 19.3%.  This is a bit higher than he was showing in the minors, but there is better pitching in MLB than at Reading or Lehigh Valley, and this is to be expected. He certainly is not being overmatched or fooled so often that he is in painful territory here.  He is not a power hitter expected to whiff more either, so a high K% would be a clear red flag.

Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) tends to be higher for quick guys like Hernandez, and during the minor league seasons where there are large chunks of at bats (over 200), he has ranged between .318 to .384, so a high BABIP is not unexpected for Hernandez.  What is unexpected is that it is .407.  Here is a list of BABIP leaders in MLB this season.  I think it is safe to say Hernandez is not going to stay over .400.  A drop to a range of maybe .315 to .325 seems reasonable, since that is where you start to see fast, no power guys like Gregor Blanco and Ben Revere.  When you pull Hernandez down to a more realistic long-term BABIP rate, his wRC+ would look more like Revere and Blanco (low 90's), but that is not a player without value, so long as there is baserunning value and defensive value, too.

My expectation is that the batting performance of Hernandez will decline from this level, but that he will be able to hit some.  Maybe he develops a little more power, and at age 23, I suppose that is possible, but a 5-10 frame carrying 175 pounds does not suggest he'll suddenly rake.  Unlike Revere, though, he has actually hit balls over the fence in his career.  I am guessing his Isolated Power (ISO) is likely to range between .075 and .125, maybe generated by legs and an occasional ball off the wall.

I am not concerned that he will collapse and never hit, but I am certain he will not continue to hit this well in this manner. He can be a useful offensive part as a fast, on-base-ish type of guy (maybe .340 or so), especially considering that his walk rate is higher than Revere's.

Part of the fun of watching the Phillies since the All Star Break has been to see young players coming in and doing well. Hernandez is outperforming, so we shouldn't expect the Phillies to look to unload Revere.  Still, even as a potential bench part to play some outfield and some infield, or pinch hit or run, this is a guy who is better than someone like Michael Martinez.

Lots of "little wins" on the roster are needed to turn a baseball team around.  Cesar Hernandez, even adjusted to a more rational BABIP, looks like a "little win" at the back end of the roster.  He's cheap, and his BABIP-adjusted baseline is likely to improve over the next four to five years as he rises toward a physical peak.  It's good to see more of that and less of the old, expensive, declining players that defined the Phillies' bench and roster in the early part of 2013.