More Sports:

August 26, 2017

Phillies Notebook: Hernandez still running in place, Kingery finishing strong, bullpen weapon emerging

The scene: the bottom of the eighth inning on Thursday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, a game in which the Phillies had blown an 8-3 lead and trailed by a run after the Marlins scored in the top half of the inning.

After pinch hitter Andres Blanco struck out swinging, leadoff hitter Cesar Hernandez laced a single to right field for his second hit of the day. But Hernandez did not advance as Freddy Galvis and Nick Williams struck out and grounded out to end an uneventful half inning and leave Rhys Hoskins in the on-deck circle.

A curious observer the press box wondered, given the game situation, why Hernandez hadn’t attempted to steal second base.

With the 2-3-4 hitters due up, wouldn’t the Phillies want to put the game-tying run into scoring position? But Hernandez, who has been the team’s fastest base runner for the last two seasons, at least until Williams arrived, was stationary.

Does Hernandez, now in his fifth big league season and nearing 500 total games played, have a green light to go whenever he wants?

“Not all the time,” manager Pete Mackanin said on Saturday. “Not all the time.”

Hernandez, who has 30-steal potential based on his foot speed and above league average OBP, has 13 stolen bases this season in just 16 attempts in 95 games.

The good news? An 81.25 percent success rate is a marked improvement over his 56.67 percent success rate (17-for-30) last season.

The bad news, though, is a leadoff hitter with Hernandez’s skill set should probably be more regularly trusted on the basepaths at this point in his career. Then again, just because a player has been blessed with speed doesn't necessarily mean he's also blessed with smart base-running instincts. 

“Once a guy shows me that he knows when to steal and when not to steal, and he knows how to get a good jump, he knows how to read a slide step, and he proves that he does, until that time, I’ll pick the time when I give him a green light,” Mackanin explained. “I think he’s going to get there, but he hasn’t proven it to me yet. I’m not just going to give him the green light.”

Again, the fact that Hernandez has made fewer outs on the base paths this year is a good thing for the Phillies offense. (Oh wait, as if on cue, Hernandez was picked off first base in the third inning of Saturday night’s game, just as this story was being composed.) And it’s very possible that Hernandez, at age 27, is what he is as a baserunner –– gifted with foot speed and the ability to easily score from first on a double, but lacking in the instincts to be a regular base stealing threat.

For whatever reason, former Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino comes to mind when thinking of young, fast players who were able to grow into becoming consistent base stealing threats.

Back in 2006, Victorino attempted just seven steals (he went 4-for-7 in those attempts) in 153 games. But a year later, in 2007, a 26-year-old Victorino went 37-for-41 in stolen base attempts (and would steal 25 or more in each of the following three seasons, too).

Of course, the 2007 season also coincided with base running guru Davey Lopes first year on the coaching staff. The Phillies led the major leagues in stolen base percentage in every season from 2007 to 2012 (Lopes’ final season with the Phillies was 2010; he’s now with the Washington Nationals).

But back to Hernandez.

The Phillies’ regular second baseman is having another productive year in his second full season as a regular, slashing .290/.357/.434 with 20 doubles, six triples, and eight home runs in 431 plate appearances. The current major league average for second baseman: .266/.328/.416.

One of Hernandez’s top tools since arriving in the big leagues has been his foot speed. According to MLB Statcast sprint speed data (which you can read more about in that highlighted link), Hernandez’s 28.5 feet-per-second makes him the 29th fastest player in the National League (and second fastest on the Phillies behind Williams, 29 ft/sec).

But a quick look at some other fleet-footed National League players (some fellow leadoff hitters) shows that foot speed doesn’t always coincide with stolen base success:

 SB-Attempts  Sprint Speed (ft-per-sec)
 Cesar Hernandez 95 13-16 28.5 
Ender Inciarte   124 17-2327.5 
Manuel Margot   946-10  29.3
Jonathan Villar  103  20-26 27.5
Keon Broxton   114 19-25 29.6

It’s worth noting that just 10 major leaguers entered play Saturday with at least 30 stolen base attempts this season: Dee Gordon, Billy Hamilton, Elvis Andrus, Jarrod Dyson, Jonathan Villar, Rajai Davis, Cameron Maybin, Delino DeShields, Jose Altuve, and Trea Turner.

Also worth noting: while stolen base totals in the NL have been steady for the last decade, the total has been greater than 1,500 just two times from 2008-16 while there were 1,500 or more stolen bases five times between 1999-2007.

Entering Saturday, there was a total of 992 stolen bases in 1,917 National League games in 2017. At that current pace, the league would finish with 1,256 stolen bases, the fewest steals in a non-strike season in the NL in more than 40 years (1,176 SB in 1975).

'Jetpax' Still Going Strong

Speaking of second baseman who can run a little bit, Triple-A Lehigh Valley prospect Scott Kingery went 0-for-4 on Saturday night, snapping his 23-game hitting streak.

Two nights earlier, Kingery set the IronPigs new franchise record, breaking the mark set previously by Domonic Brown (21 straight games).

Kingery has made each of his last two starts in the field at unfamiliar positions (shortstop on Thursday, third base on Friday) just as J.P. Crawford has (he’s been at second base the last two nights after playing third base all week) as the Phillies top two position player prospect add versatility to their prospect portfolios, which is never a bad thing … as one of their own division rivals can attest.

But back to Kingery. He entered Saturday slashing .328/.367/.481 with three home runs, seven doubles, and two triples in his last 30 games.

Why is this significant?

Because perhaps the one knock on Kingery coming into 2017 was that his 5-10, 180-pound frame began to break down toward the end of ’16 and his production suffered. Kingery slashed .230/.254/.302 in his last 30 games at Double-A Reading last year and his bat was slow in the Arizona Fall League, too.

Cheryl Pursell./Lehigh Valley IronPigs

Scott Kingery.

But to Kingery’s credit, he packed up some weight in the winter and changed his routine once 2017 began.

“I put on like 10 pounds and I didn’t lose as much,” he said. “But I’m still light. I’m lighter than I’d like to be, pretty much all my fat is gone, I think it’s literally two percent body fat. Right now, the energy is just coming from my routine. I’ve started going to bed earlier and getting up earlier. I’ve had the same routine all season. I’ve been able to follow that and just stay on a certain pattern.”

Sleep patterns can be tough for minor league baseball players, with long bus rides and random early start times sprinkled throughout the season. But Kingery has managed to make it work.

“If you want to wake up with some energy,” he said, “you have to force yourself to stick to a plan.”

With 16 games remaining on the IronPigs schedule, Kingery has some time to round off a couple of his numbers. He needs four home runs and two stolen bases to become the first minor league player to post a 30/30 season since Joc Pederson of the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes hit 33 home runs and stole 30 bases in 2014.

Morgan's Rise

One of the advantages (if there really is such a thing) to Phillies young starting pitchers struggling is that it’s allowed plenty of opportunity for the team’s relief corps to sink or swim. One of the arms swimming pretty well in the second half of 2017 is former young struggling starter Adam Morgan (see how that works?).

Morgan was summoned from the ‘pen on Friday night and all he did was set down six of the seven hitters he’d face in two innings, five on strikeouts. Morgan struck out Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Alex Avila, Jason Heyward, and Javier Baez.

One of the not-so-secrets of Morgan’s success? Increased velocity. He hit 97-MPH on the gun a few times on Friday.

Like a lot of starters-turned-relievers, Morgan saw an uptick in velocity in his new role in general: he hovered between 89-92 in 2015 and 2016. But the more startling development has been on the increase within the same season in the same role: Morgan began the season in the 93-94 range and is nearing the season’s finish line hovering between 95-97.

As you can imagine, the strikeouts have followed. Morgan’s 10.71 strikeout rate (K-per-9 innings) is the 16th best among left-handed relievers with at least 20 innings of work in 2017. But the part about that that’s most impressive: of the 15 relievers ahead of him, only four, Andrew Miller, Brad Hand, Sean Doolittle, and Oliver Perez, have a better K/BB rate than Morgan’s 3.43.

Morgan has a 0.73 ERA (one run in 12 1/3 innings) and a 0.89 WHIP in August. If he finishes the year with a strikeout rate north of 10.0, as it is now, Morgan would become the fourth Phillies left-hander reliever to do so since 1913, joining Jake Diekman (who did it twice), Antonio Bastardo (three times), and Billy Wagner (twice).

"Really just staying the course," Morgan said of the key to finding consistency. "I'm still just trying to find my niche in the game. Really just doing the same things. I think the velocity is coming from not being a starter and throwing five to six innings every five days. My body feels great and it's August, so that's a positive."

Tocci Subject

September call-ups are a little more than a week away and a name to keep an eye on is Carlos Tocci, the longtime center field prospect who just turned 22 this week (and was ranked No.4 in our latest Phillies Prospect Power Rankings.)

Tocci was promoted to Triple-A earlier this month, but has an advanced hit tool and plays a major league caliber center field. His bat has also been hot for some time: Tocci is slashing .315/.355/.420 in his last 67 games between Reading and Lehigh Valley.

Ryan Lawrence/PhillyVoice

Carlos Tocci.

Perhaps the most telling sign the Phils are trying to get him ready for a possible call-up: Tocci started in left field on Saturday and has made 15 of his last 75 starts in the field in either left or right after playing 44 of his first 46 games in center field.

As we’ve seen with Hoskins (and the aforementioned infielders at Triple-A), versatility is important in the big leagues, particularly in September when big league managers are trying to juggle multiple players around. With Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera still on the disabled list, Tocci could provide much-needed depth to the outfield corps next month.

And he could very well be one of two 22-year-olds summoned to the Phillies in a little more than a week.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Like PhillyVoice Sports on Facebook.