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What Makes Cesar So Good at the Plate?

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His strikeouts are going down, and his on-base and power numbers are going up. What’s transformed Cesar into one of the game’s best 2Bs?

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Very little was expected of the rail-thin, 23-year-old Cesar Hernandez when he arrived in the Big Leagues in 2013, the corresponding move to Michael Young being placed on the Bereavement List. In younger Cesar, we had what we thought to be a second-division keystoner who had some speed and decent instincts, but fell just short of being usable at a more valuable position like shortstop or center field, had streaky plate discipline tendencies and faced real concern over possibly ever hitting anything but singles at the plate.

Fast forward to 2018, and Cesar has become one of the 10 best second basemen in the game. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2015, some of Cesar’s numbers easily rank among the best at the position:

  • .288 AVG (9th out of 34)
  • .363 OBP (5th)
  • 104 OPS+ (t-14th)
  • 21 triples (2nd)

Min. 500 PA, 50%+ of games played at 2B

Now, some more observant readers would probably notice things like home runs and SLG aren’t listed there, and the reason for their absence is fairly self-evident. Cesar, for all his improvements, did not turn into Brian Dozier. But adjustments have been made, all the same. Consider this scouting report from then-Crashburn Alley contributor Eric Longenhagen at the time of Cesar’s call-up:

“The one issue Hernandez has had with the bat is trouble hitting decent, vertically oriented breaking balls. Many a fringe average 12-6 breaker has snuck underneath Cesar’s flailing bat and into the dirt just behind home plate before careening off an opposing catcher’s thighs. He’s just not good a identifying them or adjusting to them in flight to make contact. If he can learn to lay off them, not even hit them, just stay the hell away from them, then he’s plugged up one of the two holes in his offensive game and I’d feel a whole lot better about his chances of being a productive daily player.”

This tendency stayed true through Cesar’s partial 2013 and 2014 seasons with the Big League club, as he graded out as subpar against the benders, per Fangraphs’ Pitch Value metric. And the improvement as a left-handed batter, in particular, stands out the most.

Fangraphs

In 2015, Cesar did practically no damage on any curve that busted him inside. He could hang back and wait long enough, and had a swing that hung through the zone long enough, however, to take outer-half hangers and poke them. That strength played up even more in 2016 (aggressively so), but also finally began to creep back closer to the inner half. Finally, in 2017, everything coalesced into full-plate coverage. The shading is relative, and you’ll note that, despite covering more of the plate and getting more hits from the pitches in those locations he put in play, he wasn’t exactly crushing them all. Again: Improvement in steps.

The collation of Cesar’s zone approach in this small slice of data is actually indicative of another improvement: The inconsistency that once marred his approach and plate discipline is growing smaller in the rearview mirror. The 2014 season lowlighted Cesar’s vulnerabilities, exploiting him mid-at-bat and in two-strike counts with pitches out of the zone. He swung at 31.7 percent of pitches he saw that were out of the zone (slightly above the 30.7 percent league average), but made contact on just 55.3 percent of those swings (dreadfully below the 65.7 percent league average).

The good news goes on. Check it out:

Cesar’s Discipline

Year PA O-Swing% Lg Avg O-Contact% Lg Avg SwStr% Lg Avg
Year PA O-Swing% Lg Avg O-Contact% Lg Avg SwStr% Lg Avg
2014 125 31.7% 30.7% 55.3% 65.7% 10.9% 9.5%
2015 452 27.1% 30.6% 58.6% 64.9% 9.4% 9.9%
2016 622 24.3% 30.3% 63.1% 63.9% 8.0% 10.1%
2017 577 21.6% 29.9% 62.3% 62.9% 7.8% 10.4%
Fangraphs

One of the things Cesar needed to do to survive in the Bigs was to work counts and get better pitches to hit. As his career has progressed, Cesar has continuously done just that, and gotten better at it each year. That improvement has trickled down into situational performance, too, like in two-strike counts: Cesar’s OPS, with his back against the wall and in all PA that end with two strikes in the count, has increased in each of the last five years. It’s gone from .345 to .489 to .547 to .580 to .603; the 2017 MLB average OPS in two-strike counts was .531.

Mechanically, there hasn’t been too much change. Cesar stands a bit more upright from the right side, and has calmed his bat waggle pre-pitch while finishing more upright on follow-through. The differences are minute, so it’s not a complete swing tear-down-and-overhaul that has led Cesar to this point. This is a player for whom the game has clicked, and his prime physical years (in conjunction with, ahem, altered baseballs) are coinciding with his sharpest mental ones.

He may never turn into a 20-homer or 50-double hitter, likely relegating him to a tier forever below the likes of Robinson Cano or Jose Altuve, and that’s just fine. That doesn’t change the fact that Cesar is a smart player who learns and adapts to the game, and deserves recognition as one of the better hitters at the position, and that ability to learn and adapt is what should keep him productive for some time yet.