More Sports:

August 20, 2016

Hernandez, an on-base machine since the break, returns to Phils lineup

In an effort to get the enigmatic Odubel Herrera back hitting like he did in the season’s first half, Pete Mackanin could have inserted the All-Star outfielder into the top spot of the Phillies lineup, where he spent the majority of the season and where he hit in each of the last two nights, including Friday when he singled and scored the game’s first run and then hit a go-ahead home run.

Maybe the familiar look atop the lineup would change Herrera’s mentality and wake him up at the plate, right? While aware of how that psychology could benefit Herrera, Mackanin instead decided to keep Cesar Hernandez in the leadoff spot on Saturday night against the St. Louis Cardinals.

And it really was difficult to argue with the manager.

After being held out of the lineup the previous two nights with a right foot injury, Hernandez was back atop it Saturday night and entered the game as one of baseball’s top on-base threats since the All-Star break. And while there could be other factors at play, too – like Ryan Howard’s surge, Aaron Altherr’s return from the disabled list, etc. – Hernandez atop the lineup has been a success for the Phillies offense as a whole.

The Phillies have scored 4.27 runs per game since the break. In their 90 games prior to the All-Star break, they were averaging 3.64 runs per game.

Hernandez moved into the leadoff spot about a week after the Phils returned from the break.

“He looks like a better hitter right now,” Mackanin said of Hernandez, who, following his flirting with a cycle on Saturday, has hit .359 with a .469 OBP in 23 straight starts from the leadoff position.

Even if you include his first nine games after the break, when he hit .179 while hitting in the latter third of the lineup, Hernandez’s numbers since the All-Star break are right there with the best in the game.

The top 10 players in OBP since the break? Joey Votto, Jose Altuve, D.J. LeMahieu, Paul Goldschmidt, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Kris Bryant, Cesar Hernandez, Mike Napoli, and Freddie Freeman.

Hernandez ranks fifth in the NL in OBP since the break. Only four major league players have more walks than Hernandez (22 in 32 games) since the break: Votto, Trout, Goldschmidt, and Brandon Belt.

Hernandez’s on-base skills didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, though. In his first two months after taking over for Chase Utley last summer (a 48-game stretch between June 15 and August 12), Hernandez hit .326 with a .379 OBP. And among Phillies players with at least 400 plate appearances last season, only Herrera’s .344 OBP was higher than Hernandez’s .339 OBP.

But after the first 2 1/2 months of the 2016 season, Hernandez was hitting .248 with a .293 OBP and Mackanin decided it was time to work Andres Blanco more regularly into his lineup. It was during that time when Mackanin benefited from the “bad cop” on his coaching staff, bench coach Larry Bowa.

“Back when we were in Minnesota (in late June) I sat him for a couple of days and we had been trying to beat it into him, to get on top of the ball, quit uppercutting the ball; keep the ball out of the air,” Mackanin said. “So I didn't play him for a couple of days. I remember a conversation Larry had with him and he's saying you've got to start getting on top of the ball, hit it on the ground and keep it out of the air.' Cesar kind of smiled at him; thought he was kidding.”

Bowa made sure the infielder knew this wasn’t a joke.

“Hey, you think you're not playing because you're getting a rest? You're going to be on the bench with me if you don't start doing it,’” Mackanin said, recalling Bowa’s words from two months ago. “It was a little tough love Larry gave him.”

Hernandez took the message to heart – and then immediately into pregame batting practice at Target Field, too.

“So in that session of batting practice, (Hernandez) was chopping every ball into the ground; kind of like saying 'Hey, (bleep) you Larry.' One of those deals,” Mackanin said with a laugh. “But when he got back in the lineup all of a sudden he started to do it. For a week or 10 days he started getting infield singles and a couple of bunt base hits and seeing-eye ground balls; beat out some swinging bunts. All of a sudden he started thinking, 'Hey, maybe they're right.’”

And now Hernandez, who is still prone to mental mistakes on the bases, is back in the good graces of the coaching staff.

"He looks different,” Mackanin said. “He looks like he made an adjustment and I think he's getting more success because of it. So I'm just going to leave him alone. … Last year, when he took over for Utley, he was hitting everything. And then he softened up. Now he's kind of taking breaking balls, because he's better job taking them. Hopefully, we'll continue seeing that throughout the rest of the season.”

In Hernandez continues to hit in the season’s final six weeks, the Phillies will have some interesting decisions to make this winter.

Although J.P. Crawford doesn’t have to be added to the 40-man roster this offseason (while many other prospects do, in order to keep them protected from the Rule 5 draft), the top shortstop prospect is expected to arrive in the major leagues before long in 2017, if not sooner. When that happens, the expectation is that the Phillies will move defensive whiz Freddy Galvis to second base.

But this is a decision the Phillies might not have to make for another nine months or so. Until then, Hernandez will continue to try to adhere to Bowa’s advice.

Follow Ryan on Twiter: @ryanlawrence21