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September 16, 2017

The Cesar Hernandez conundrum: One of baseball's best leadoff hitters with an uncertain future with Phillies

On Thursday night, the Phillies hit more than 1,200 feet of home runs in the second inning, which ended with them holding a commanding 9-0 lead over the Miami Marlins.

Rhys Hoskins continued his home run mastery. Freddy Galvis snapped a 51-game spell without a homer. Jorge Alfaro hit a ball that’s still in orbit. Probably.

But all the while, when his teammates were sending souvenirs to the seats, Cesar Hernandez stayed within his game and set the table at the top of the lineup for two productive innings. The veteran leadoff hitter led off with a single and scored on a wild pitch in the first inning and ripped a one-out single and scored on Galvis’s home run in the second.

Hernandez finished the night with four singles. The fleet-footed second baseman was held off the bases on Friday, along with the rest of his teammates, in a 4-0 defeat to Oakland that saw the Phillies reach base twice (J.P. Crawford had two singles).

But this was a rarity for Hernandez: it was just the sixth time in 49 starts at Citizens Bank Park this year that he failed to reach base.

The reality, however, is that Hernandez has been getting on base regularly no matter the ballpark for two years now as one of baseball’s best leadoff hitters. 

Since the start of the 2016 season, only two regular leadoff hitters (min. 500 plate appearances while hitting first) have a better on-base percentage than Hernandez:

 Matt Carpenter   .400
 Charlie Blackmon  .388 
 Cesar Hernandez .378 
 Carlos Santana .371
 Dexter Fowler.368 
 George Springer .366
 Adam Eaton.363 
 Jean Segura.361 
 Ender Inciarte.359 
 Mookie Betts.349 

Prior to the 2016 season, Hernandez was slashing .269/.331/.333 in 227 major league games. On the last two years, when he’s began hitting from the leadoff spot regularly: .294/.368/.407.

“I have the same approach,” Hernandez said on whether he adapted with his lineup spot or not. “I know I’m not a power hitter, so I focus on hitting more line drives and ground balls. That’s what I try to do, put the ball in play.”

Hernandez had a very well-documented wakeup call in June of 2016 in Minnesota, when he was hitting .248 with a .293 OBP in his first 68 games. He was benched for consecutive games. He was confronted by bench coach Larry Bowa. 

Stop hitting balls in the air. Take advantage of your skill set.

“Because there’s more chances for me to get on base,” he said. “Put the pressure on the infielders, they know I’m fast, and they have to hurry, maybe make a bad throw and I have a better chance at getting safe.”

Entering play Friday, Hernandez’s 1.16 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio ranked 8th in all of baseball.

“It’s my natural swing,” Hernandez said of the adjustments he made early in 2016. “But it’s more about staying on top of the ball every time.”

“He started leveling off his swing,” manager Pete Mackanin said, “and he got immediate results. And ever since then he’s been hitting .290.”

Actually, Hernandez, who went 4-for-4 on that night he returned to the lineup in Minnesota, has hit .306 with an .812 OPS (.387 OBP, .425 slugging percentage) in the 201 games he’s played since in the last two seasons.

Odubel Herrera more regularly grabs headlines for the maddening way he complements his premium production with bouts of boneheadedness. Fellow vets like Galvis and Cameron Rupp often receive more attention for what they’re not doing offensively. Promising prospects who graduate to the big leagues like Rhys Hoskins, J.P. Crawford, and Nick Williams are talked about far more often.

Yet, for two summers now, the Phillies have had one of baseball’s most productive leadoff hitters in their lineup and in their infield, too. And apparently a decent number of people either aren’t aware or aren’t appreciating how effective Hernandez has been in the team’s otherwise ever-changing lineup.

This was from a game last weekend when Cesar Hernandez was not in that lineup:

All of this brings us to the larger, big picture point: where does Hernandez fit in the Phillies future plans?

The current infield is already crowded with Crawford, Galvis (a free agent after next season), and Maikel Franco battling with Hernandez for regular at-bats this month. Second base prospect Scott Kingery, who will be honored with the prestigious Paul Owens Award as the organization’s top minor league position player next week, graduated to Triple-A this season and could be in the big leagues as early as next spring.

“There’s been a lot of speculation about our infield and how do you make room for all these players,” general manager Matt Klentak told reporters last week in Washington, shortly after Crawford joined the team. “That’s something we’re continuing to gather information on right now to help us make that decision. It’s something I’m sure we’ll field plenty of [trade] inquiries throughout the offseason. We’ll just have to see where that takes us. It’s certainly not the end of the world to go into next year with all of these infielders we currently have in the organization. We can make that work. But if there’s an opportunity to utilize that depth to help us in other areas, then we’ll consider that as well.”

Hernandez could certainly become a trade chip this offseason. But so could Kingery, or really, anyone else on the roster (save Rhys Hoskins, who is entering untouchable status). It is interesting to note, however, that Hernandez does the one thing well that the current front office regime values: he gets on base.

While the Phillies have fared well in growing bats in the last few years, their starting pitching is thin after Aaron Nola and examining the pitching market this offseason through trades would be prudent. Package one or two of your current big league hitters with another couple of prospects and perhaps you can pry away a controllable pitcher from another team to place alongside Nola.

What the Phillies front office does this winter is uncertain, but the reality is they need pitching.

What is certain is the Phillies have a pretty nice piece, either for their next contending team or to shop on the trade market, in Cesar Hernandez. 

“I think I’m doing all I can do to help the team win,” Hernandez said of how he’s set himself up for a future with the Phillies. “And that’s it.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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