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. 

I See You, Jake Arrieta

In the last week Ichiro, Tim Lincecum, Carlos Gonzalez, Jonathan Lucroy, Mike Moustakas, and Lance Lynn have all signed. On Sunday, Jake Arrieta joined them, agreeing to a three year, $75 million contract with the Phillies. That’s an average of a signing a day! Of Major Leaguers, to Major League contracts! The dominoes are certainly falling. Finally.

Arrieta’s signing comes with curiosities. Or maybe more accurately, concerns. He has more than 1,100 professional innings on his arm. From 2014-16 he had a nasty-good run. Toward the end of it, and through 2017, his velo started to dip. Pitch Info tells us he lost two mph off his sinker between 2016 and 2017. His Ks have slightly gone down and his walks have slightly risen. At 32, he’s at an age where it’s fair to begin wondering how much further he could fall, and how quickly.

How does he adapt? Arrieta might be past his peak prime while with the Phillies, but what will he be? What can he be, and what adjustments might it take to get there? The way hitters manufactured production off him last year could help us find a path to that answer.

Arrieta wOBA

Half of his actual weighted on base averages were higher than what Statcast tells us we should have expected. Arrieta arguably has a skill of inducing weak contact, so what this would seem to suggest is that sometimes, when hitters put the ball in the air against him, he just gets beat. The overall numbers were lower during his run of dominance between 2014 and 2016, but the actual production similarly beat what could’ve been predicted based on the launch angle and exit velocity of balls in play against him.

Beyond that, though, we see a notable split in performance against lefties and righties last year. A single year of batter splits can be dubious, but consider this the New Arrieta; one whose age is revealing diminished skill. Lefties really went to town against his sinker and slider last year. The two pitches break in opposite directions, which makes them excellent sequencing buddies from the same tunnel, but things didn’t play that way for Arrieta last year.

One reason why could be because of the break on Arrieta’s slider. Per Brooks Baseball, he lost .7 inches of horizontal break and .53 inches of vertical break on it. What does that look like? I’m glad you asked.

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Thanks to Statcast’s incredible, fantastic, super fun new 3d pitch visualizer, we can see how that loss of break in Arrieta’s slider could have impacted its performance against lefthanded hitters.

The slider is in red circles. His sinker is in black squares. The ones closer to the mound mark the point at which batters could first recognize the pitch. The ones closer to the plate tell us when batters would have needed to commit to swinging. In 2017, lefthanders saw Arrieta’s slider sooner and were able to decide on swinging against it later than his sinker. Less movement, plus less velo, plus the same tunnel means hitters faced a pitch with very little bite. And that’s how an absurd .509 wOBA happens.

From 2014-16, lefties only generated a .240 wOBA against Arrieta’s slider. Last year’s numbers are probably an outlier, but if the pitch continues to flatten out it could really threaten the viability of one of his weapons. He could consider turning the pitch into more of a true cutter to deliberately make it run further inside on lefties, or he could use it less in favor of the curveball. There’s also a chance he could take a little off the slider to widen the velocity gap with his fastball, but deliberately throwing slower in this context doesn’t seem ideal. 

Arrieta’s going to be an intriguing piece to watch on an increasingly intriguing team. The Phillies are showing they’re getting ready to contend, and his evolution as a pitcher could be key to making it happen.

Pitch mix and wOBA data from Statcast. Feature image: Greg Fiume/Getty Images