When the season opened, it was not a stretch to think that Cesar Hernandez would be one of the players most affected by the Phillies’ decision to start the clock on Scott Kingery’s big-league career. Kingery, after all, was almost exclusively a second baseman during his rapid climb through the minor leagues and a damn good one at that.
Manager Gabe Kapler, in fact, had planned to start Kingery at second base in the second game of the season at Atlanta. Hernandez, supportive of Kingery when he got a multiyear contract before ever playing in a big-league game, nixed the idea not by anything he said but through his opening-day actions.
The veteran second baseman had a couple of hits against the Braves, and Kapler is on record saying he likes to stick with a hot hand regardless of what the analytics say. Hernandez started the second game and had two more hits. He has started all but one game since at second base while Kingery has found the majority of his playing time at shortstop and third base.
The thinking on Hernandez is simple. You don’t sit one of your best players, and it can be argued that Hernandez is the Phillies’ best position player right now. According to BaseballReference.com, his 1.8 WAR (wins above replace) is the best among the team’s position players. At the very least, he has been the Phillies’ most consistent position player.
His batting average has been below .260 for just one day this season, but there are a lot better numbers to define what the Phillies’ leadoff hitter does for his team. Thanks to his 50 walks, which ranked eighth in baseball heading into the weekend, his on-base average has dipped below .370 for just three days this entire season. His 53 runs were second only to Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies among second basemen. Hernandez, 28, has also played extremely well in the field, committing just four errors while compiling the fifth most chances in baseball at his position.
The one place you will not find Hernandez’s name among the leaders is in the all-star balloting. Only the top five at each position are listed by MLB.com and Hernandez is not among them. It would be hard to argue that Hernandez belongs on the team ahead of Albies and Cincinnati’s Scooter Gennett based on the power numbers they have posted, but Hernandez deserves to be at least third on the National League list.
“To be honest with you, I never pay attention to the all-star voting,” Hernandez said through a team interpreter. “If I ever have a chance to go and represent the Phillies that would be a very proud moment for me, but I really don’t pay attention to it.”
Hernandez said his greatest concern right now is his team. He has watched Kingery and shortstop J.P. Crawford struggle during their rookie seasons and he wants to help them because he knows the feeling. It was not until his fourth season that Hernandez started to emerge as one of the game’s better second basemen. He wants to help Kingery and Crawford get to that point faster.
“We all go through it, so we know what it’s like,” Hernandez said. “I’m always trying to help them through drills and different points of view. I want them to do things the right way, so I’m always on top of them. I want to help them establish themselves as fast as possible. I know they are definitely going to be awesome baseball players. I just want them to do it quicker than me.”
When the season started, the two rookies provided reason to believe that Hernandez was on his way out with the Phillies. But he’s not a free agent until after the 2021 season and it’s obvious that Kapler has fallen in love with his second baseman.
In fact, when the Phillies pulled out a 4-3 win over St. Louis on Wednesday, it was not the three hits or the game-winning home run by Herrera that most impressed the manager. It was an out by Hernandez.
“In the third inning, we didn’t score, but Cesar got down 0-2 and then he grinded,” Kapler said.
It became a six-pitch at-bat against Cardinals ace Michael Wacha, and seeing pitches is another area in which Hernandez excels. He ranks sixth in baseball in pitches per plate appearance.
“We ended up loading the bases in that inning and we didn’t score,” Kapler said. “But Wacha worked and he worked really, really hard. And what happened in the fourth inning I thought was really interesting.”
With two outs and a runner on second base, Hernandez saw six more pitches. He fouled off a couple of them with the count at 1-2, then slammed a Wacha change-up for his eighth home run of the season to give the Phillies a 3-1 lead.
“Sometimes we don’t think the previous inning as being productive because we didn’t score,” Kapler said. “But I thought it was a really, really productive inning and I thought it led to the scoring and the home run in the fourth.”
Hernandez has eight home runs this season, one shy of the career high he set last season. That increased power is just another in a long list of reasons Kapler never wants to take his leadoff hitter and second baseman out of the lineup.