Going Deep: Kiké Hernandez Set to Turn Heads in 2019

It’s been a long road to major league relevance for Enrique “Kiké” Hernandez. The 27-year-old, originally drafted in 2009 by the Houston Astros, accrued over 2,000 minor league plate appearances before earning his first taste of MLB action in 2014. Hernandez was then traded twice—first to the Marlins, and then to the Dodgers—within the next six months. From there, the versatile Hernandez, capable of playing nearly every position on the diamond, spent four seasons competing for playing time on an extremely crowded Los Angeles roster.

Starting at a mere 218 plate appearances in 2015, Hernandez incrementally worked that figure up to 462 last season, cutting his strikeout rate and increasing his power output along the way. Hernandez’s playing time is poised to rise even further this season, with manager Dave Roberts confirming that he will serve as the Dodgers’ starting second baseman in 2019. Now squarely in the prime of his career, the stars are aligning for Hernandez to have a true breakout season in 2019.

 

Incremental Growth

 

By the end of 2013, which marked Hernandez’s fifth full professional season, the prospects for his MLB career looked bleak. The 22-year-old posted a middling .236/.297/.375 batting line at Double-A, with his 89 wRC+ that season serving as the third straight below-average offering following rates of 86 in 2012 and 91 in 2011. Considering that the major league success rate for hitters who post three consecutive below-average minor league seasons is very low, the bright lights for Hernandez’s career were dimming rapidly.

But he retooled his approach in 2014 and turned heads with a .319 batting average and .856 OPS across several minor league stops. The performance earned Hernandez an MLB call-up to the Astros in July, and he subsequently caught the eye of the Marlins, who traded for him later that month. His stay in South Florida proved short-lived, as he was dealt to the Dodgers in the offseason in a blockbuster trade that sent Dee Gordon and Dan Haren to Miami.


Since his arrival in Los Angeles, Hernandez has displayed consistent, incremental growth in a variety of ways. Most notably, he has transformed from a free-swinging, strikeout-prone player to someone who possesses one of the better batting eyes in baseball. These improvements are exemplified by a strikeout rate that settled at 16.9% last season after sitting as high as 26.2% in 2016. Hernandez’s ratio of walks to strikeouts has also improved markedly, nearly tripling from its 0.24 level in 2015 to 0.64 in 2018.

While shaving nearly 10 percentage points off his strikeout rate is impressive enough, the fact that Hernandez has also increased his power output in the interim is truly special. There tends to be a significant trade-off between hitting for contact and power, but Hernandez bucked the trend and improved his ability in both facets.

 

Justin Turner-izing

 

As much as today’s fans, myself included, rave about power output and exit velocities, limiting strikeouts is still the best way to ensure consistent, sustainable success in the majors.

Hernandez’s reduction in strikeouts is underpinned by a smarter all-around approach, headlined by a cutback in O-swing %—the number of balls outside the strike zone that he swings at—from 33.9% in 2015 all the way down to 24.8% in 2018.

Clearly, swinging at fewer bad pitches is a good thing, but some players backdoor into this approach by swinging less overall. I don’t really recognize this type of change as a positive since taking a called strike in the heart of the plate hurts offensive production just as much as whiffing at a slider in the dirt.

It’s in this respect Hernandez differentiates himself. His dramatic reduction in O-swing % actually came with an increase in Z-swing %, indicating that Hernandez is making legitimate improvement in his pitch recognition and plate discipline. Impressively, his 43.6 Z-O-swing % in 2018 ranked in the 90th percentile among players with at least 400 plate appearances.

Predictably, Hernandez’s swinging-strike rate has declined each season as a result of his smarter swinging decisions, dropping to 8.6% in 2018.

These improvements can’t help but elicit thoughts of Hernandez’s teammate Justin Turner, owner of a .381 wOBA and 143 wRC+ since 2014. Like Hernandez, Turner’s career seemed dead in the water six years ago, but he morphed himself into a contact beast who walks nearly as much as he strikes out while still scorching a large share of extra-base hits.

While I’ve harped on the incremental, year-by-year nature of Hernandez’s growth, a switch seemed to flip abruptly in May 2018. On May 17, Hernandez’s 30-game rolling strikeout rate sat at 31%, an elevated level that he was accustomed to experiencing in previous seasons. However, by June 24, it plummeted to 12%, a level that he maintained throughout the rest of the season.

Producing four months of a strikeout rate in the low-teen range is a fairly significant accomplishment and might indicate that Hernandez has achieved a Turner-like command of the plate. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hernandez’s 2019 BB/K ratio trends above 0.80 while his strikeout rate comfortably sits below 15%, ranges that will open him up to significantly higher offensive production.

 

He’s Got Some Pop Too

 

Hernandez’s 5’11” frame was never projected to hit for much power at the professional level. And for the longest time he didn’t, as he struggled to post isolated slugging figures above .100 in his first four to five years in the minors. However, in 2012, he started trading ground balls for fly balls, and by 2013, he posted a solid .140 ISO in a notoriously power-sapping Double-A Texas League.

Like most players, Hernandez experienced a power boost upon promotion to the more hitter-friendly confines of MLB ballparks. However, he’s managed to capture an increasing share of home runs by gearing his swing to produce fly balls. In his 2015 debut, Hernandez’s 30.4% fly-ball rate was below the MLB average; however, his 43.9% rate in 2018 sat in the 85th percentile.

Hernandez’s fly-ball inclinations have helped contribute to a lowly .277 career BABIP. However, sacrificing base hits for home runs is a solid trade-off, especially if he can continue to increase the number of overall balls he hits into play via fewer strikeouts.

Hernandez’s overall hitting profile is strikingly similar to that of the aforementioned Turner, along with Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros. Each is a modestly sized right-handed hitter who possesses plus plate discipline, along with an affinity for hitting balls in the air. All three also possess fairly pedestrian Statcast readings; however, they are able to produce outsized power production by gearing decently hit fly balls to the pull side for doubles and home runs.

Hernandez struck 21 home runs in 462 plate appearances in 2018, a pace that would prorate to roughly 28 through a full season’s worth of opportunities. Assuming he eclipses 600 plate appearances in 2019, and that he can maintain a strikeout rate in the 12-14% range, Hernandez seems like a good bet to hit 30 home runs this season.

 

Platoon Issues?

 

Over his first several seasons, Hernandez developed a reputation for crushing left-handed pitchers but struggling significantly against righties. This perception was anchored in reality, as Hernandez failed to exceed a .097 ISO against same-side pitching from 2015 to 2017. The Dodgers, a team deep with platoon bats, proceeded to shelter Hernandez, only allowing him to accrue 397 plate appearances against righties in that span.

But Hernandez completely flipped this narrative last season, accruing a .243 ISO and .455 xSLG against righties, figures that far outstripped his production against lefties.

Platoon spits generally aren’t reliable until a player accrues five full seasons of plate appearances, a metric that Hernandez still isn’t close to achieving (his career 1,411 plate appearance put him at about 2.5 full seasons). As a result, Hernandez deserves the benefit of the doubt that his 2018 production is closer to his true baseline ability than his 2015-17 showing. Additionally, if his start to 2019 is any indication, with Hernandez bashing two home runs against Diamondbacks right-handed pitches on Opening Day, the platoon issues are long in the past.

 

Conclusions

 

While he’ll never post mind-bending exit velocities or barrel rates, the plate discipline-power combo that Hernandez brings to the table will make him a very valuable player at the plate in 2019. Assuming he is able to maintain a stranglehold on the keystone for Los Angeles all year, Hernandez seems primed to end the season with 600+ plate appearances and a batting line that could include 30 home runs to go along with a .275 batting average and .350 on-base percentage.

(Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)

Nick Gerli

Nick is a Boston-based baseball nerd originally hailing from New York. He is passionate about baseball (duh), finance and heavy metal music. In the warmer months you can often find him wandering around Fenway Park in a Jacoby Ellsbury Yankees shirt. @nickgerliPL

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Comments


Kev

Wow. Excellent article. Just put Murphy in my IL slot. Need a 2B. Was trying to decide between McNeil and Hernandez. Was leaning McNeil but this article makes me want to reconsider. 10 T Roto. ROS which one would you choose?

Nick Gerli

Hello, Kev!

I would go with Hernandez over McNeil. Kike has better power potential and his long-term position in the lineup is more secure.

Jack

Would you trade Adam Eaton for Hernandez? I need 2B help — as in, Schoop is my only 2B — and of course Eaton is fully healthy which makes him currently tradeable.

Yeah, right?

Nick Gerli

Jack,

I think this depends on how you feel about your team’s SB potential. If you feel set there, then I would go ahead and make the trade. If you feel like Eaton’s 15 or so SB is important to your team, keep him.

G

Yeah, well- you don’t get to brag when you said, “I thought about making him my MVP pick.” lol

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