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César Hernández turning discipline into power

What do you do when you can’t hit every pitch 500 feet? Take the ones you can hit and hit them as hard as you can.

Cleveland Indians v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Nearly halfway through his one-year deal he signed this offseason, César Hernández has been nothing short of a delight for the Indians.

All of Hernández’s 114 at-bats with the Tribe have come as the lead-off batter and so far he’s been worth the $6.25 million he was signed for and then some. The 30-year-old second baseman has played slick defense in the field, ran the bases well, and he’s been one of the Indians’ only bright spots on offense, sporting a .281/.364/.430 slash and two home runs.

If I wanted to be sacrilegious and use in-season WAR — a slippery stat purpose-built to compare multiple seasons over generations, not a player’s contributions over a month of baseball — I would note that he has been worth exactly 1.0 FanGraphs Win Above Replacement in 2020, which is the 28th best in baseball.

Despite hitting a combined 29 home runs over the last two seasons, Hernández is hardly what you would consider a power threat — more of an on-base machine with occasional pop and gap power at this best.

At his worst, though, he can sap his own power at the plate by being over-aggressive.

We saw him do just that in his final season in Philadelphia. Hernández can chase balls all over the plate and make contact, as he showed with a career-high 27.2% chase rate and 68.3% chase contact rate and one of his higher first-pitch swing rates at 27.4% in 2019. But the bigger question is: Should he?

The result of Hernández’s aggressive approach in 2019 was 14 home runs, the second-highest of his career, and his second-highest slugging percentage at .408. He was swinging at just about everything in the zone (64.1% zone swing rate) and making contact on those pitches 89% of the time. The overall result was a career-low 15% strikeout rate and more superficial power. But his exit velocity was in the seventh percentile, among the worst in baseball, and the increased swinging meant he walked a lot less. It culminated in a 92 wRC+ on the year, his worst offensive season heading into his first shot at big free agent money.

The offensive drop-off allowed the Indians to snatch him on a downright bargain. Even at 30 years old, Hernández was a steal at the $6.25 the Indians signed him for, and that was before he had an apparent offensive renaissance.

Small sample size warning in mind, Hernández’s approach at the plate this season has been a complete turnaround from 2019. In 130 plate appearances, he’s walked 10.8% of the time and struck out 22.3% — a career high. That last number might be concerning, but consider that he’s also making much harder contact with 38.8% hard-hit rate, compared to 28.3% in 2019 and 34.8% in his career. He’s also barreling the ball — or, making optimal contact — 3.5% of the time, up from 2.7% in 2019 (which is also his career rate).

How’s he doing this? Well, besides the obvious noise created by a small sample size, he appears to be much more selective in Cleveland than he was in Philadelphia. Hernández is chasing pitches 20.9% of the time — the second-lowest rate of his career — and his overall swing rate is 39%, down from his career 46.6% swing rate.

It should come as no surprise that, since 2017 when he peaked offensively then slowly started to chase more pitches outside of the zone, his slugging percentage sits opposite his outside-swing percentage over his 15-game rolling averages.

Unlike last season, where he was on a mission to make his bat touch every ball it could, even if it meant making weak contact, he appears to be seeking out “his” pitches more often. The result a few more called strikes over the plate, but harder contact, back-to-back lead-off homers, and 11 doubles — tied for second in all of baseball.

It’s too early, and too strange of a season, to know if this is a sustainable new look for Hernández, but at the very least it has helped him be a solid contributor for the Indians and it should give him another shot at hitting free agency as a good hitter instead of an over-aggressive one.