Cesar Hernandez Tests the Limits of Plate Discipline

In the quest to build a lineup stuffed with count-workers, there have been successes. But has Cesar gone too far?

Cesar Hernandez always had it in him to work a walk. Even though he came from modest beginnings and only walked 7 percent of the time during his 2013 cup of coffee, Cesar’s walk rate has climbed every year of his Major League career. This year, it’s at a career-best 13.6 percent through September 14, crushing the league average of 8.4 percent and sitting tied with Paul Goldschmidt for 13th-best in the Majors, just 0.1 percent ahead of Rhys Hoskins.

The result is the trademark “OBP 100 points higher than the AVG” season typically found with guys like Joey Votto and Mike Trout and (cough) Carlos Santana, who show some pop to complement their selectivity. Cesar’s never been confused with Chase Utley, despite his career-best 11 homers and counting in 2018, and his presence among the most patient and selective hitters in the game has been a bit of an outlier in that regard.

In the 2016 and 2017 seasons, it looked like Cesar had found the perfect balance of everything. His strikeouts were under 20 percent, his walk rate was over 10 percent, and he’d even started dropping a few more extra-base hits while improving his base stealing efficiency. It was great to see, and put Cesar on the shortlist of most underrated players in the game.

In 2018, things have exceeded critical mass, and the delicate balance has been disrupted. When Cesar does put the ball in play, he’s in doing so in line with his recent, improved batted ball profile, but his selectivity has taken a turn for the extreme. The raw results are fine. A .257/.361/.356 line from a slappy, switch-hitting second baseman is fine. It’s even fine as a lead-off option, which Cesar has been for most of this season. But it’s a step backward from 2017, and points toward a curious trend for Cesar, one that raises a question about what kind of hitter he’ll be in 2019 and for the rest of his career.

He’s putting himself in a position to succeed.

Half the battle is won. Cesar is still excellent at working his way into favorable spots, having gone 2-0 a total of 103 times and 3-1 a total of 90 times, inclusive. That’s a whole lot of hitters’ counts, and it’s where the league is doing the most damage. In percentages, Cesar has gone 2-0 in 16.1% of his PAs and 3-1 in 14% of his PAs, both of which completely smash league averages (13.7% and 8.4%, respectively). For a guy who was already getting himself into good counts regularly the past few seasons, these are huge leaps on top of all that. You can’t say Hernandez is letting himself slip behind the 8 ball, and this part of his approach still looks airtight.

He’s just not seizing these opportunities.

What’s happening after he gets into an advantageous count, though, is a deviation from league trends, and from Cesar’s own track record: He’s swinging at way fewer pitches in these counts.

It’s a lead-off hitter’s job to get on base, and not swinging at junk pitches would go a long way toward that. It’d be a bit more understandable if Cesar was seeing an immensely lesser-quality offering of pitches once he got to these spots. But this is extreme, and Cesar is both getting roughly the same percentage of strikes he always has, and is making contact in line with his career norms. His added selectivity certainly appears to be intended, and not as a result of adapting to a change in pitches seen.


BrooksBaseball

The above is a plot of Cesar’s swing percentage when thrown a four-seam or two-seam fastball in a 2-0 count. He’s chased precisely one, which is great and on-brand, but has watched a considerable number of fastballs in the zone go by. Zoning is rough here, but look at the heart of the plate as a microcosm for this whole point. Going further, the passivity on pitches in the lower half also goes against the grain for Cesar specifically, because those zones are where he’s hit the ball hardest this year.


BaseballSavant

Does he make up for it later in the count?

So, we’ve established that Cesar is letting more hitters’ counts and hittable pitches in those counts fall by the wayside. He’s not really counted on to be a masher at the very top of the lineup, and he doesn’t exactly have Chase Utley’s power profile, so maybe all parties are fine with Cesar working the count a little deeper…if he eventually makes good on it.

So, we’ll expand our look. Maybe the specific pitches delivered on 2-0 and 3-1 counts see less action than normal, but what about the end result of those plate appearances? How do those PAs that start 2-0 and/or 3-1 eventually end up?

Good things happening here. The ends seem to justify the means. Relative to the rest of the league in this split, Hernandez comes out above-average, and if anything, examining his splits by count reveals that he’s been far weaker when putting an early pitch in play (particularly on 1-0 counts, where, somehow, he’s only hitting .219 with one extra-base hit).

The goal seems to be to get to a full count, really. Cesar’s run it full a crazy 143 times, which leads the Major Leagues, just ahead of MVP candidates Jose Ramirez (142) and Goldschmidt (134). He’s also winning the battles when it gets to that point, walking 13 more times than he’s struck out and producing a .503 OBP at the end of those battles.

So…is this a good thing?

Here’s where this journey appears to have brought us: Cesar, who was never much of a power hitter, has further sacrificed some pop (by way of hittable pitches in favorable counts) in order to work deeper counts. The entire lineup is hellbent on the same goal (save for Jorge Alfaro, but we’re sure his day will come), and if Cesar’s the guy leading the charge, spared the burden of more RBI opportunities, this game plan makes some sense. It’s an extrapolation of Hernandez’s inherent patience.

Honestly, were it not for the sometimes-insane streakiness from the hitters behind Cesar, this plan should have led to more runs being scored. With two weeks of season left to play, Hernandez has had 593 PAs at the top spot in the order, produced a .363 OBP, and scored 83 runs in those 128 games. From 1996 through this season, only two other hitters have had that many leadoff PA and a .360-plus OBP and scored fewer runs: Nori Aoki for the 2013 Brewers (68) and Quilvio Veras for the 1998 Padres (78). There have been 85 of those seasons since ‘96, and the average runs scored total is 106. If you thin that herd down to 2012-18, when run scoring changed a bit from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, there are only 16 such seasons, and the average runs scored is still 101.

I’m not sure how much comfort a “coulda, woulda, shoulda” scenario like this is, especially in light of the team’s slide over the last month or so, but the season Cesar has had should have paid greater dividends than it has. This juiced-up patience has its drawbacks in the form of additional strikeouts looking and a drop in power, but trading in power from a speedy player like Cesar and giving him additional shots at getting on base ahead of the more powerful hitters has mostly worked. For his part, anyway. Whether Hernandez will continue to be this kind of hitter in 2019 and beyond is still to be seen, but if he’s with the Phillies, he’d still be their best in-house leadoff option.

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