Cesar Hernandez Swings Less, Hits More

Getting talked up as a second baseman can be hard. Jose Altuve, Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, and Jonathan Schoop occupy a lot of that conversation. Other, older guys like Robinson Cano and Ian Kinsler are still kicking around. Whit Merrifield says hello from Nowhere, too. And then there’s Cesar Hernandez, who seems to get talked up most for how underrated he is.

He’s one of only two holdovers on the Phillies since he came up in 2013 — the other is Luis Garcia — so even after this offseason of the team shedding some of that sluggish rebuild weight and adding some bona fide muscle, they must see something in him. He’s not just an asset to turn. This is true even after signing Scott Kingery, whose primary position is the same as Hernandez’s, to a six-year extension before he’s even played a single game in the Majors.

Hernandez is remarkably consistent. He strikes out less than 20% of the time, walks more than 10%, will display occasional pop, and can handle the glove at the keystone. But even consistency needs to evolve sometimes in order to keep pace, and we may have seen the next step from Cesar Hernandez last year.

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The change, in a word: discipline. Per Pitch Info, we can see how Hernandez apparently decided to just stop chasing pitches out of the zone. In the first half he ranked 29th in MLB, directly ahead of Edwin Encarnacion, and fourth at his position. That’s already pretty good. But in the second half he shot up to eighth in MLB and tied with now-teammate Carlos Santana, and second at his position.

It’s one thing to see a relatively sharp change in a stat and be able to acknowledge how a player’s performance improved or declined. It’s another to process how directly it possibly influenced his overall production. Consider that Hernandez swung at 5.2% less pitches in the second half. Nearly 80% of that decrease was the direct result of letting pitches outside the zone go. That’s four balls for every called strike.

The difference in Hernandez’s approach fueled a drastic increase in OBP and was a big reason he became 25% better than league average at creating runs. It’s no wonder he went from being worth less than a win before the All-Star break to 2.4 after it.

Check out the gifs below. They’re both of the switch-hitting Hernandez swinging from the left side at a pitch to the same outside third of the plate:

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The first is against a Yu Darvish fastball in May and resulted in a weak groundout to Elvis Andrus. It has a nice Fox Trax spot to show you how it was out of the zone. The second is against a Robert Gsellman fastball in September, around the same outside third of the plate, and was a double. This one doesn’t have a tracker showing you it was more over the plate, but, per Statcast, it was.

If you’ve heard of pitchers working the plate side to side, Hernandez does a little bit of the same with his swing, working horizontally. He pulls out his hips behind him and lets his bat drive through the zone on a similar plane. The small difference in pitch selection between the two gifs was the difference between a dribbler and an extra base hit, and Hernandez made this a regular thing from mid-July and on.

It appears as though he didn’t make any mechanical change that allowed him to better cover the plate or access the ball when it got there. This is true whether he batted lefthanded or righthanded. His plate discipline, then, really does seem to be the result of simply choosing to swing at only what’s within the zone. Last August, I wrote about Rhys Hoskins being exciting in the context of the current Phillies, and how he offers a threat that the rest of the lineup doesn’t. If Hernandez’s plate discipline sticks in 2018 — the handful of games so far hasn’t allowed for a stable sample size yet — then he, too, will offer a skill that makes the lineup tougher and more of a threat.

It’s been a weird year for the Phillies already. Between Gabe Kapler and younger talent making a push for playing time, it could get much weirder. But an eye like Cesar Hernandez’s at the plate every day could help steady the ship.

Pitch Info Data from FanGraphs. Gifs made with Giphy. Feature image from AP/Laurence Kesterson. 

Two Reasons Mookie Betts Has Been Less Awesome

Mookie Betts was incredible in 2016. As the third best player in the Majors, he posted a 7.9 fWAR. But this year has been different. His .261/.341/.434 triple slash line is a far cry from the one he posted last season of .318/.363/.534. His 101 wRC+ tells us he’s producing runs at a rate that is barely above league average, while also revealing a lot of his value has come from his defense.

And yet, he’s still on pace for about 4.5 fWAR, which still makes him one of the game’s top assets. He continues to be awesome, but a different kind, and different enough to ask “what’s changed?”

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There are some significant differences from last year to this year in Betts’s contact profile. In general, he’s swinging less. Like, a lot less. Last year he took the 20th-most pitches in the league. This year, he’s taking the 4th-most. He’s also swinging at fewer pitches in the zone, while making more contact when he goes outside it. That’s an odd combination for a player so disciplined at the plate. It suggests pitchers have adjusted to Betts and that he might have picked up on it, but that he hasn’t quite countered yet. 

And though it helps us see what’s fueling a lower triple slash this year and, by matter of course, lower WAR, it doesn’t tell us how pitchers have adjusted to Betts. He’s seeing just about the same pitch mix this season as last, save for one thing. He’s getting about 22% sliders this year, or an additional 5% more than in 2016. 

His wOBA against sliders is just .276 this season. That’s lower than what even his expected wOBA against sliders was last year, which he topped by 57 points. And like dominoes, this one push is impacting other pitches he’s seeing.

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Changeups are also giving Betts considerable problems, and it could be because he’s been oddly less patient with them than other offerings in 2017. Despite seeing almost the same exact amount this year as last, and swinging at them at a nearly identical rate, his weighted pitch value against the offering is more dramatic than any other. He’s managing an unimpressive -.43 mark this season. In 2016? It was at 3.67. He’s gone from waiting for changeups to show up in his wheelhouse to swinging at it freely. It’s extremely uncharacteristic for Betts, and it’s yielded just a .260 wOBA against the pitch.

Consider how the changeup is designed to induce weak contact, how it can often fade and drop away toward the lower outside corner of the zone, and how sliders drive to the same portion of the plate. Pitchers seem to have found a way to sequence their stuff against Betts to thoroughly influence the damage he can create with the bat.

This is particularly true with righthanders, against whom Betts is batting only .253 in 2017. Last year, he hit .331 against them. And because the league features about two and a half as many righthanders as southpaws, the trouble for Betts becomes emphasized that much more. 

Mookie Betts is still exceptional. He’s still demonstrating elite control of the zone, as evidenced by a walk rate that equals his K rate. But there appear to be plate adjustments that will be necessary for him to make if he’s to return to being one of the game’s absolute best. 

Featured image from Jennifer Nicholson/USA Today Sports Images. Data from FanGraphs.