As the Phillies’ final full week in August began, Cesar Hernandez was under the microscope after failing to run hard out of the batter’s box last Sunday in Miami on a ball he incorrectly believed was headed over the right-field wall.
Manager Gabe Kapler deemed it unacceptable and kept his second baseman out of the starting lineup the following day at the start of the Phillies’ homestand at Citizens Bank Park.
By last Tuesday, Hernandez’s hustle problem was old news even though it took a while for Kapler to get his intended message across. The spotlight by the end of last Monday’s win over the Pittsburgh Pirates had turned to reserve Sean Rodriguez, who had to be the first player in major-league history to hit a game-winning homer one night and get booed in pregame introductions the next.
He was entitled to it and it was a peculiar couple of days even by some of the absurd standards the Phillies have established this season.
Despite it all, we arrived at Labor Day weekend for the second straight season with the team still in contention for a playoff spot, which is nice because we don’t have to spend all of September looking ahead to next season, an exercise that had started to become a baseball tradition around here.
We don’t have to, but we can and we will right now place the spotlight back on Cesar Hernandez, one of the more polarizing position players on the Phillies.
His status for next season figures to be in question for a couple of reasons. First, Hernandez will be entering his final year of salary arbitration and is likely to be paid north of $10 million, an amount teams usually like to reserve for guys who can hit 20-plus home runs. Second, Scott Kingery is the second baseman in waiting and next season should be the time for that wait to end.
In the midst of talking about Hernandez’s failure to run in Miami, Kapler was asked to describe what kind of season he thinks Hernandez is having.
“That’s a great question,” the manager said. “I’ll state the facts first. He’s gotten hits and he has hit for some power. His defense has improved over the course of the last six weeks. There was a rough stretch in there, but he has gotten better.”
Hernandez’s most disappointing number this season is his on-base percentage. He had a career .357 on-base percentage coming into the season, but it was only .335 this season heading into the Phillies’ four-game series with the Reds in Cincinnati.
“I think his profile where he was more of an on-base threat last year was one that we really need right now,” Kapler said. “He could really help us at the top of the lineup and I think he knows that.”
Hernandez was Kapler’s first choice to replace Andrew McCutchen in the leadoff spot after the center fielder was lost for the season in early June. The second baseman, however, batted .125 with a .222 on-base percentage in eight games immediately after McCutchen’s injury and he has hit in the leadoff spot only nine times since then.
“I think he has been more aggressive,” Kapler said when asked about Hernadez’s dip in on-base percentage. “And aggressiveness in a vacuum is not a bad thing. Aggressiveness in the zone is a great thing. He’s gone outside the zone a little bit more than he did last year. And I think it’s a pitch-identification thing. I think it’s an approach thing. I think it’s a mind-set thing. And I think all of those, Cesar is well aware of.”
Hernandez said his approach at the plate is a byproduct of where Kapler has placed him in the lineup.
“Baseball is a game of adjustments,” he said through an interpreter. “I’m sure if you’ve looked at the lineups just this season, I haven’t been the leadoff guy all season long. To be in the lineup where I was, I was more accustomed to being aggressive. Now that I’m back in the leadoff spot, I have to just go back to when I was the leadoff hitter last year and just try to be more patient, see more pitches. That’s the adjustment that I’m trying to make now.”
Hernandez said that last Monday after batting first three straight days in Miami.
Kapler said last Monday: “I think I’ve said this on multiple occasions. I think our team works best, without Andrew McCutchen, when [Hernandez] is our leadoff hitter. If he can stick and take control of that leadoff spot down the stretch, man, we are a much better team, a much deeper lineup.
"And that’s really him working at-bats and grinding pitchers and spinning on pitches just off the plate and fouling off one more pitch and finding his way to first base via the bunt, somehow, some way reaching base. He makes our lineup much better when he does those things.”
Hernandez has not batted first at all this past week.
What the future beyond this season holds for the 29-year-old Hernandez will be fascinating. His 1.5 fangraphs.com wins above replacement is tied for 12th among big-league second basemen and tied for sixth among National League second basemen.
He is clearly among the top half of the players at his position, but Kingery, who is four years younger, could be even better if given the opportunity to play the position he held during most of his ascent through the Phillies’ minor-league system.
As much as the Phillies love Kingery’s versatility, I believe he would be a better offensive player if he did not have to worry about playing multiple positions. And having watched him play second base in the minor leagues, I think he can be an All-Star and Gold Glove winner at second.