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Let’s talk about Cesar Hernandez

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He wasn’t very good in 2018, which some blame on injury. But was his season a lost one solely because of injury?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies-Workouts Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Last year was a bad year for Cesar Hernandez. His numbers, other than the number of home runs he hit, were worse than last year than in previous years. He never looked right as the season went on, the reason for which we found out later on was a broken foot suffered on July 6. Meghan Montemurro wrote about Hernandez at the beginning of spring training, getting some good quotes as part of her profile.

On how his injury impacted his game:

Hernández visited the trainer’s room daily last season after suffering the injury. X-rays of his right foot were taken each week to monitor the fracture and make sure it didn’t worsen. The injury affected every part of the switch-hitter’s game to the point that he could barely stand on the foot. When he would bat left-handed, Hernández’s front plant foot was impacted. He was compromised, too, hitting right-handed — all of his weight rested on his back right foot. Defensively, moving laterally to field ground balls was difficult. Hernández still managed to steal six bases after breaking his foot, though he was also caught stealing four times.

“I just wanted to keep playing because we’re in first place,” Hernández explained. “I wanted to help the team make a push for the playoffs.”

On what manager Gabe Kapler learned about Hernandez:

“Even when his foot was a mess and even when his mechanics as a result of his foot being hurt weren’t where he wanted them to be, he still had the toughness and never wanted to come out of games,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “Did I learn how tough he was? I absolutely did.”

On why other options for second base weren’t considered:

“What we try to do is evaluate fairly and accurately,” Kapler said. “What does the track record tell us that might happen going forward? Are we evaluating César Hernández for the four months that he was healthy? Because when we are evaluating that player, he deserves to keep getting run out there as he’s struggling and maybe when he’s dealing with a little bit of pain. So what I guess what I learned is that there’s nuance to track record.”

Whenever you watched Hernandez play as the season wore on, you know something was up with him. We were used to watching him put up solid, though unspectacular numbers in 2016 and 2017. 2018 was just him being off, but at least now we know why. These are what his numbers were before and after the time he had the injury (similarities to the ones in Montemurro’s piece are natural, though not intended to copy):

C. Hernandez 2018

Dates AVG/OBP/SLG K% BB% wRC+
Dates AVG/OBP/SLG K% BB% wRC+
Mar. 29- Jul. 6 .260/.374/.404 21.0% 14.8% 113
Jul. 7 - Sept. 30 .236/.329/.338 22.9% 11.8% 84

He stopped walking as much, struck out too often and didn’t have any thump in his bat. Putting him in the leadoff spot, which Kapler did 61 out of 76 games, was a poor use of lineup construction (which we can talk about another time). Point being, he just wasn’t that good last year when you take the season as a whole.

It’s fair to wonder though: prior to the injury, was he already slipping last year as it was?

If one investigates little further into Hernandez’s season, you would notice something that is pretty different: his plate discipline. I’m not sure if I noticed it or not, but his approach at the plate during his pre-injury part of the season was pretty dramatically different. Take a look at this chart where I present plate discipline data going back to 2013 for Hernandez.

C. Hernandez plate discipline

Dates O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
Dates O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
2013 28.4% 63.3% 44.9% 62.2% 89.2% 80.2%
2014 31.7% 64.6% 46.6% 55.3% 88.9% 76.4%
2015 27.1% 69.4% 46.0% 58.6% 89.7% 79.5%
2016 24.3% 68.0% 44.3% 63.1% 89.9% 82.0%
2017 21.6% 61.4% 40.3% 62.3% 88.0% 80.7%
Mar. 29 - Jul. 6 18.1% 56.5% 35.3% 59.9% 88.3% 80.2%
Jul. 7 - Sept. 30 23.0% 61.4% 40.5% 60.1% 91.2% 81.6%

When you look at that pre-injury time, what jumped out to me is how passive he was with the physical act of swinging the bat. That’s a 5% drop in swinging at pitches in the zone, the same percentage drop at swinging period. Is this something he was consciously doing? I did a cursory search for anything about Hernandez and how he planned on attacking pitchers last year and didn’t find much, so I’ll assume that he was basing this change in approach on something he was told to do by the new coaching staff. However, if you judge from his slugging percentage in his pre-injury plate appearances, the pitches he was making contact with (you’ll see those contact rates are the same), he wasn’t doing anything with. You see his .385 slugging during the pre-injury months. Does that look all that much different to you than his career numbers?

If you take into account how pitchers were approaching him, it is pretty obvious that they picked up on his tendency to take more pitchers because they threw more pitches in the zone in 2018 than they did in either 2017 or 2016 for that matter knowing he wasn’t able to hit the ball with any kind of authority.

For some reason, taking a more passive approach to his game made Hernandez think he could be a more productive bat when in actuality, he already was a pretty darn good player and shouldn’t have changed a blessed thing.

So where does he go from here? Well, perhaps the best way to start is to get back to swinging more often, especially at pitches that are hittable pitches. We all know how Kapler wants his batters to find more pitches to do damage with rather than just poking a ball into the opposite field, but that simply isn’t Hernandez’s game. He is at his best when he holding a higher batting average than something in the .250’s.

We already know that Hernandez won’t be leading off to start the season as that job will belong to Andrew McCutchen. Hernandez seems destines for the sixth or seventh spot, which seems like a waste of a player with his on-base talents. I’ve advocated he should be hitting ninth to serve as a quasi-leadoff man for players like McCutchen and whoever is hitting second. A more productive season from Hernandez should make this already deep (on paper) lineup even more dangerous. Let’s just hope that his approach at the plate goes back to when he was a 3-4 WAR player. Then, they’ve really got something going.