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2017 Phillies player review: Cesar Hernandez

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While we all focused on the future, one middle infielder stayed in the present.

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There was a big chance we’d look right past Cesar Hernandez: to Nick Williams, with his footing corrected and his head on straight, stroking XBHs into the corner; to Rhys Hoskins pegging sea gulls with baseballs on their way to the triple deck; to J.P. Crawford adjusting mid-play as a grounder takes a bad hop and still manages to turn the double play from his knees.

Below us on the field, as our eyes glazed over and drool pooled at our feet, Cesar Hernandez was playing baseball.

On opening day, Cesar worked a full count off Reds starter Scott Feldman and proceeded to hit the first leadoff home run to open a season since Alphonso Soriano in 2009 (the last Phillie to do it was in 1938).

Cesar first joined the Phillies in 2013 due to the bereavement leave of Michael Young; he stuck around as they dealt Chase Utley and the previous era came to an end. With no clear future in place for the team or the current players, he was here as they plugged oddly chosen free agents into the lineup and watched prospects not work out for every reason from mental capacity to burn outs to being struck by hale. Finally, the Phillies are taking shape again, and Cesar is still here.

But he’s not a 14th best prospect getting his shot out of necessity anymore. He’s a veteran table-setter—he didn’t reach base in only seven out of 60 starts at Citizens Bank Park this season—a guy scoring as his rookie teammates bash searing line drives and record-breaking home runs. And he does his job better than anyone had predicted when he’d gotten the call four years ago.

Even as recently as 2016, we were seeing a version of Cesar that made you shake your head. One the top subplots of that season was his inability to run the bases without getting his foot stuck in a bucket or thinking the number of outs had carried over from the previous inning or chasing a bird past the third base bag. He seemed to be lacking a high baseball IQ, and given the transitory nature of his career—no one considered him a part of the future, with more highly-touted prospects in the system who could play his position and his lack of an everyday starter’s output. But as the shutters came down on Citizens Bank Park that year, a quick review of the team stats indicated that Cesar had finished among the leaders: Third in WAR (3.3), first in BA (.294) and OBP (.371) and the league leader in triples (11).

It seemed like Cesar had something left to say. In 2017, after playing in 155 games the previous season, the Phillies were going to let him keep saying it. So he did, playing in 128 more games, giving the Phillies 3.1 more WAR, maintaining the same impressive slash line (with a boosted SLG to boot: .294/.371/.393 in 2016 vs. .294/.373/.421 in 2017, albeit in about 30 fewer games), and getting that bug in his brain last year out when he was on the bases (15 SB/5 CS in 2017 vs. 17 SB/13 CS in 2016). His triples went down (from 11 to 6) but his doubles went way up (14 to 26). He had 42 multi-hit games (and two four-hit games).

Just for fun, check out his slash lines vs. divisional opponents:

  • Braves: .342/.415/.521 in 73 AB
  • Marlins: .308/.403/.431 in 65 AB
  • Mets: .318/.408/.455 in 66 AB
  • Nationals: .288/.367/.425 in 80 AB (He hit .302 in Nationals Park)

Cesar Hernandez is not just a real player, he’s a real asset. There was a lot of work that went into keeping himself in the conversation, and it paid off: People are talking about Cesar Hernandez. Two straight seasons of mostly healthy, mostly productive infielding is not common, and it’s unfortunate for Cesar (or the Phillies?) that he plays on a team for which that may make him more of a trade asset than a guaranteed starter. By being a 3.0+ WAR player for two years, Cesar has forced the Phillies to make choice: trade him to make room for hot-hitting Scott Kingery, or pin their hopes to the 27-year-old who has clearly figured something out. It’s not the most white-hot debate of our time, but it’s more of an issue than anyone thought it would be.

Nobody’s looking past Cesar anymore. Nobody’s calling him “14th best” or a AAAA prospect; not on a team that, for the third straight year, he led in walks (61), his second straight year of logging 60 of them. He’s the kind of player who winds up on a playoff team, whether it’s here or somewhere else; who becomes familiar to the fans watching him but not to many others. He’s the player you don’t see coming, and not because of the dust he kicked up falling down between the bases (anymore), but because he was one of the players not expected to be more than he’d ever been, and who transcended expectations while we were looking at something else.

Now, there’s only one more question left: Where is he going to be as good as he has been?