I have been a fairly vocal skeptic about Cesar Hernandez and his improvement over the last year. It’s time I eat crow publicly. I thought CÃ©sar’s run of good outcomes would halt once pitchers adjusted back to him. Now, they’ve made adjustments and he’s still raking. Having looked at the underlying changes in his peripherals, I’m convinced he can continue to be an above average to borderline all-star second baseman. [Picks up fork and knife, cuts piece crow, puts in mouth.] So, while I’m chewing, I’ll try to say how CÃ©sar managed to transform from a placeholder 2nd baseman into a potential cornerstone of the future.
Over at Fangraphs, Dave Cameron recently diagnosed part of CÃ©sar’s turnaround. After being benched in Minnesota last season, CÃ©sar started doing three things that correlate highly with improved power and batting average on balls in play. First, he started pulling the ball more. Second, he generally has hit the ball harder, which often happens when a hitter pulls more baseballs. Third, he has hit the ball harder to the opposite field. Taken together, these improvements make it unsurprising that he has gone from a bottom-of-the-order slap hitter to a top-of-the-order on-base machine with sneaky power. But how did he manage that transition? What did he do to become not only more of a pull hitter but also a hitter who hits the ball almost as hard as Maikel Franco?
To answer that question we have to look at his approach, what pitches he’s been swinging at and where in the strike zone. To be a good hitter, you have to know your strengths and your weaknesses, and take advantage of opportunities that play to your strengths. Because pitchers make the first move, hitters are always in an initially passive strategic position. That’s why commentators like Ben Davis often quip, “Take what the pitcher gives you.” But to take the good from the pitcher and not the bad is a difficult task. Looking at a CÃ©sar’s approach should give us an idea of how he’s managed to play at-bats to his strengths and away from his weaknesses.
What we find, when we look, is that CÃ©sar has focussed his swings more on the middle of the zone and down. He’s eschewing pitches up more, especially those that are up and middle to away. But that’s not all. The improvements he’s made cannot be explained by selecting where in the zone to swing. He’s making better contact even in parts of the zone where he’s swinging less. So, he must be selecting more hittable pitches than he was before.
The story of these adjustments starts in Minnesota, June 21st, 2016. The Phillies were mired in a long losing streak that finally made us feel the reality of that team. It wasn’t good. CÃ©sar in particular was struggling at the time, hitting balls in the air, not very far, into opponents’ gloves. Pete Mackanin and Steve Henderson decided to sit him for the Twins series so that he could fix his uppercut and hitting more …
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