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February 23, 2017

Samuel's base-stealing expertise may be key to unlocking Hernandez's skills

CLEARWATER, Fla. – There was a lot to like with Cesar Hernandez in his first full season as the Phillies' everyday second baseman.

The 26-year-old Hernandez hit .294 with a .371 OBP, leading the team in both. He tied for the major league lead with 11 triples. According to advanced metrics, he graded out well on defense, too.

But Hernandez’s study on-base skills were countered too often by making outs on the base paths in 2016. After successfully stealing 19 bases of 24 attempts in 2015, Hernandez went just 17-for-30 in stolen base tries last season.

He was one of just eight players in Phillies history (since baseball-reference’s data began in 1901) to be caught stealing at least a dozen times without racking up at least 20 stolen bases in a single season.

Phillies (since 1901) with fewer than 20 SB and more 12 times caught stealing:

Otto Knabe (1913)  14 18 
 Dode Paskert (1913)  1217 
Dave Bancroft (1915) 15  27
 Beals Becker (1915)12 15 
Casey Stengel (1920) 713 
 Cy Williams (1921) 515 
Cy Williams (1922)  1114
Mickey Morandini (1997)   1613 
    Cesar Hernandez (2016)     17 13

*from's Play Index

So what happened between the 2015 and the 2016 season, when his success rate dropped from 79 percent to 56.7 percent?

“The difference when that was going on is I was picking the pitches for him,” said current Phillies third base coach Juan Samuel, who spend the majority of the 2015 season as the Phillies first base coach. “He wasn’t doing it on his own. I was finding things on the pitcher. I was finding things on the catcher. Even a couple of the bench coach signs that we’d find. Anything.”

Samuel laughed.

Despite spending no more than five full seasons in a Phillies uniform, Samuel ranks eighth in club history with 249 stolen bases as a Phillies player. Samuel stole 72 bases as a rookie in 1984, the most in a single season by a Phillies player in more than 100 years. He was caught stealing just 15 times that summer.

Samuel averaged 50 stolen bases per season in his first four big league seasons.

“I think it came naturally for me, knowing and timing the pitchers right, situations, things like that,” Samuel said. “There was a time where I used to say, OK, I know he’s quick to the plate and I know the catcher can throw, but that’s the one I want to get. It’s the attitude. OK, you’re known for throwing guys out – throw me out. It was more a challenge, me vs. you. And if you get me, it’s not going to stop me. I have to get you (still). It’s a mentality.”

The 56-year-old Samuel now works along with first base coach Mickey Morandini to help teach the Phillies current base runners. It’s just as much about “frame of mind” and “mentality,” Samuel said, then just the gift of natural speed.

If you have both, it’s a bonus, of course. Chase Utley, for example, wasn’t the fastest player in Phillies history but he has the second-best stolen base percentage in baseball history.

“Smart,” Samuel said. “Look at (Paul) Goldschmidt. This guy steals bases. You don’t have to be a burner to steal bases. If you make good decisions and you’re timing is right. Pitchers, they’re always going to give you a little something. It’s a matter of finding those.”

But they key to unlocking Hernandez’s potential on the base paths isn't just studying video and jotting down each National League pitchers’ tendencies in a notebook. According to Samuel, Hernandez can benefit from mechanics.

“We need him to be consistent with his his lead at first base,” Samuel said. “It’s not the same all the time. And he needs that confidence. He needs to get it. I think Spring Training will be a place for him to try.”

When the subject was brought up to Hernandez one recent morning inside the home clubhouse at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Fla., the infielder held his hands apart by roughly six inches.

It only takes that much bigger of a lead?

“But that’s the difference between being out or safe,” Hernandez said. “Even that little bit.”

So how do you convince yourself to stay confident by taking a bigger lead consistently?

“By knowing that can make a difference,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez spent the offseason in Miami with his family getting his body in shape for the 2017 season. He altered his diet and bulked up (more than 15 pounds, he thinks).

He also worked on agility drills, moving laterally in exercises in an attempt to get better jumps off of first base.

“Just trying to have more explosion on that first step,” Hernandez said.

This is another physical area Hernandez can stand to improve, according to Samuel.

“He’s one of these guys who picks up speed as he gets going,” Samuel said. “So he needs a bigger lead to make up the difference or that. His first couple of steps are not the fastest. From home plate it’s different, but from first base to second, he’s not as quick coming off. You’re going to steal your bag there, your first couple of steps are going to do it. So we’re trying to get him to take a bigger lead to make up for that.”

And then there’s one other thing…

“If you know you didn’t get a good jump, you don’t have to keep going,” Samuel said. “I’d like to see those guys who break and (realize) they don’t have it to come back to first base. Once Cesar was going, he was gone.”

Samuel chuckled again.

Hernandez was one of the most consistent offensive players for the Phillies in 2016. Hernandez’s .413 on-base percentage after the All-Star break was the sixth-best in all of baseball.

There’s a lot to like. But the leadoff hitter knows he can take advantage of his top tool, his foot speed, and take his game to an even more productive level.

“A lot of times I’d go and I’d have a bad jump,” Hernandez said of getting caught stealing 13 times last season, which was the more than anyone in baseball other than Milwaukee’s Jonathan Villar (a former Phillies prospect who also stole 45 more bases than him).

“So that’s what I’d say, if you have a bad jump you can’t go back to first. You need to keep going,” Hernandez said. “That’s what I learned last year. If you have a bad jump, just go back to first. That’s why I made so many outs last year.”

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