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Why Cesar Hernandez’s baserunning hasn’t been as bad as you think

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We’ll stop short of saying he’s actually Rickey Henderson. But one of the loudest criticisms of the Phils’ starting second baseman may not be all that well founded

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

“Awful.” “Terrible.” “Horrendous.” Those are three of the adjectives used to describe Cesar Hernandez’s baserunning, in mentions to the TGP Twitter account on Sunday and Monday. They’re capsules containing bits of a larger belief that’s spread through Phillies Twitter (and those in the real world, too) that has firmly painted Hernandez as one of the game’s biggest liabilities on the basepaths. You’d almost think he was prone to pulling a Ruben Rivera at any given moment.

The belief is entrenched at this point, and in the way Bobby Abreu’s three or four alligator-armed plays in the field or Pat Burrell’s 2003 forever clouded the minds of fans and occluded them from seeing and appreciating the better parts of their games, it seems a few bad runs from Hernandez are beginning to take a toll, and paint him as a net neutral or negative because of it.

This isn’t to excuse the lot of his mistakes. He’s made them, and they can sometimes be bewildering. The dramatic nature of plays like the casual trot off the field against the Rockies in late April might be informing some of this belief, and once a negative aspect of a player’s game becomes well-established, it’s harder to forget: We use these detractions as defense mechanisms, whether to temper our enthusiasm for fear of letdown or to beat rival fans to the punch of criticism and deride our own in order to defang other fans. It stings a little less when we say bad things about our own teams’ players, doesn’t it?

Amateur psychology aside, there’s reason to question the veracity of this hypothesis, just like any other. How bad is it, really? Do blunders like the one linked above stick out because of their inopportune timing, skewing our perception? Or are they part of a more truly damaging characteristic?

Let’s find out.

Numbers can only do so much. And when you talk about the more esoteric things in the game of baseball, baserunning — like catcher framing and pitch sequencing — feels like a hard thing to accurately quantify. I imagine, if you’re of the opinion that Cesar runs with two left feet, that none of the numbers will tell you anything different. You’re a hard bunch to convince.

But I’m gonna give it a try.

There are a number of different metrics out there that try to put a value to baserunning, but there are also more simple counters that tally up various game scenarios without assigning a run value or baking in a comparative element.

Take this table, for example. These are his numbers, entering Monday night’s game against the Cubs, from his time as a regular.

Baserunning & Misc. Stats *
Year Age Tm SB CS SB% SB2 CS2 SB3 CS3 SBH CSH PO PCS OOB OOB1 OOB2 OOB3 OOBHm XBT% 1stS 1stS2 1stS3 1stD 1stD3 1stDH 2ndS 2ndS3 2ndSH
2015 25 PHI 19 5 79% 18 5 1 0 0 0 5 2 6 0 3 2 1 42% 32 24 7 9 4 5 16 4 12
2016 26 PHI 17 13 57% 17 11 0 2 0 0 2 1 6 1 1 3 1 50% 31 18 13 8 3 5 13 5 8
2017 27 PHI 15 5 75% 15 5 0 0 0 0 3 0 6 0 3 0 3 43% 31 25 6 17 7 10 19 5 13
2018 28 PHI 19 6 76% 18 5 0 1 1 0 1 0 5 1 4 0 0 41% 39 29 10 9 4 5 15 4 11
2019 29 PHI 3 1 75% 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 38% 8 5 3 5 2 3 3 3 0
7 Yr 7 Yr 7 Yr 74 34 69% 71 31 2 3 1 0 12 4 25 2 11 7 5 43% 156 112 42 55 24 31 75 23 51
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/20/2019.

What sticks out? There are a few easy observations, and we’ll start with the bad news.

  • 2016 was a bad year in the stolen base department. Going 17-for-28 is subpar.
  • Seven total pickoffs in 2015-16...also high. Getting picked off should be, maybe, a once-annual occurrence.
  • Those OOB totals count outs on-base that are not caught stealing events. For example: Trying to advance on a fly ball, attempting to take more than one base on a single, or getting doubled off on a fly or line drive. So we see, then, that Cesar made six such outs in each of 2015, 2016, and 2017, and 10 of those 18 outs happened either at third base or home, a disproportionately high number at the most crucial spots on the baserunner’s journey.

We can see a bit of the criticism find its footing in these earlier-career mishaps. Those aren’t the numbers of an adept runner...or are they?

Take a guy who grades out similarly in pure speed: Whit Merrifield of the Royals. In Merrifield’s first two full seasons — 2017 and 2018 — he made 18 outs on-base, and eight of those came at third or home. Dee Gordon even made 15 OOBs in 2014-15, his own age-26 and -27 seasons, and 10 of those came on the penultimate and ultimate bases.

Just two examples among a sea of players and, to be fair, Gordon’s a bit better at taking the extra base than Cesar, but we at least see that Cesar has company in this department. He’s not some outlier.

In the money category, steals, things stay pretty par-for-the-course, too. Cesar has 73 steals in 103 attempts since ‘15, good for a 71 percent success rate. Over that time, among players with 25-plus steals, Cesar ranks 91st of 126, a fraction ahead of Odubel Herrera (95th), J.T. Realmuto (96th), and Bryce Harper (98th). He’s in the lowest third, but hasn’t even been the worst on his own team in terms of efficiency.

Which, finally, brings us to more erudite metrics like the baserunning runs found on Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus. What do they have to say? Again, since 2015:

  • Fangraphs: Tied for 94th of 302 players overall, 78th of 172 measured players so far in 2019
  • Baseball Prospectus: T-117th of 539 players in 2019, T-73rd of 815 in 2018, T-19th of 824 in 2017, T-631st of 818 in 2016, T-91st of 832 in 2015

That bad year in that steal department rears its ugly head in 2016’s numbers, but otherwise, nothing quite qualifies as damning here. And there are even some quiet successes, like in his first-to-third on a single in front of him and scoring from first on a double in a game against Milwaukee earlier this month.

There’s less and less gray area in debate anymore, but it seems to me Cesar Hernandez sits somewhere near-squarely in the middle of the extreme opinions of his running ability that play tug-of-war with one another. It’s entirely possible that he’s just okay, fine, or passable, and him being that way should be acceptable. I’ll grant you the feeling of squandered potential, that someone with his raw wheels probably left something on the table. But to call Hernandez a “horrendous” baserunner on the whole? That may be a bit much of a secondary lead.