Is César Hernández For Real?

Heading into the 2017 season, we here at Crashburn Alley strive to update you on a specific storyline regarding many of the returning staples from last season’s roster. Today is second baseman César Hernández.

As I’m sure you’ve heard, César Hernández surprisingly managed to lead the Phillies in fWAR last year with 4.4. This was also third best among second basemen in the National League. At the beginning of last season, if you had given me 5 guesses on who would lead the Phillies in WAR, I don’t think Hernández would have made the cut, but here we are.

His path to very-good-playerdom followed the Luis Castillo precedent of good defense, high average, lots of walks, little power, and decent baserunning, but how much of that is sustainable for the 26-year-old’s upcoming seasons? Let’s pick this apart piece by piece.

Good defense

(Photo by David Hahn/Icon Sportswire)

Last year, Hernández rated as +16 runs by UZR, which contributed a huge amount of his overall fWAR. DRS, however, placed him at +4, which constitutes more than a full win of value less than UZR. Moreover, prior to last season, Hernández had been a negative-value defender by both DRS and UZR every season of his career. Generally speaking, defensive value peaks early in a player’s career, but Hernández has the physical tools to handle second base. He also played more innings at second base last year than he had in his previous three seasons combined. That being said, I’d be extremely surprised if he repeated his +16 run performance. I expect regression, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he maintained positive fielding value.

High Average

Hernández ran a .304 average at Double-A in 2012; then a .309 average at Triple-A in 2013. In his Major League career, his average over 1300 PAs is .281, and last year he peaked at .294. I think it’s  a pretty safe bet that, with his speed, Hernández can continue to post high batting averages for the foreseeable future, especially if he continues to successfully bunt for hits.

Lots of Walks

This is perhaps the most dubious item on the list. Hernández’s walk rate has increased each year he’s been in the Major Leagues, and last year it finally broke the 10% threshold. Over the past 15 years, only 19 qualified hitters have managed a walk rate above 10% with an ISO below .100, and only 10 of those managed to be average or better by wRC+. Hernández did that in 2016, but I would bet on some walk rate regression. Pitchers threw him strikes about 46% of the time in 2016, compared with the league average of 45%. Due to his lack of power, pitchers should be more than willing to fill up the strike zone against Hernández in 2017.

Little Power

Hernández actually posted the highest ISO of his career last year at .099. After entering the season with two career home runs in 708 PAs, he mashed six in his 622 PAs in 2016. For what it’s worth, his hard hit rate and pull rate were both career highs, which could mean this meager power spike is not a fluke. Hernández also led all qualified hitters in triples with 11, but ranked second-to-last in doubles with just 14. Realistically though, if he wants to maintain any semblance of power, he’s going to have to use his speed to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples, which leads us to our next item.

Good Baserunning

I don’t think anyone could defensibly argue that Hernández is a good baserunner. He’s certainly fast, but it seems he lacks the awareness of a top-level baserunner. Hernández converted just 17 of his 30 steal attempts. That put him second in the MLB in caught stealing, behind Jonathan Villar, a guy who stole 45 more bases than César. Hernández’s 56.7% stolen base rate ranked last in baseball among players with at least 10 stolen bases. The league average was 72%.

There are a few bright spots, however; Hernández successfully took the extra base (meaning moving up two bases on a single or three bases on a double) 50% of the time in 2016, compared with the league average of 40%. Despite his reputation for making boneheaded baserunning plays, he made just 6 outs on the bases in 2016 (not counting caught stealing), tied with Freddy Galvis and well below the 10 Odubel Herrera made. This explains why Hernández had nearly as many triples as doubles last year.

Conclusion

The bad news is it appears that Hernández’s stellar fielding marks and above average walk rate may not be sustainable. However, there is room for improvement in his power and baserunning, and he’s likely to maintain his good batting average.  That profile doesn’t look like a superstar, but Hernández does look like an average to above average second baseman moving forward.

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