As Brett Ballantini already recapped earlier today, the White Sox finally have a new second baseman, acquiring César Hernández from the Cleveland in exchange for 2018 third-rounder Konnor Pilkington.
By now, you may already be vaguely familiar with how Hernández has played this year. Let’s take a deeper look into the kind of player we’re likely to see in the starting lineup for the rest of the season.
The biggest question some may have about Hernández concerns the power surge he’s seen this year, and, to a lesser extent, last season. He’s already blown past his career high with 18 home runs this season, and while his power numbers have steadily improved in recent seasons, his current slugging percentage of .431 is more than 40 points more than his career mark, and is good for sixth in the American League. Despite hitting just 17 home runs through his first 500-plus games at the big league level, Hernández ranks third among AL second basemen with 60 extra-base hits since the start of 2020.
It remains to be seen how his run production will translate in a Sox lineup that has quite a few more big boppers than the soon-to-be Guardians, but there’s little reason to believe Hernández’s bat will quiet down. He’s not particularly strong — his average exit velocity of 88.6 m;ph and maximum EV of 110 mph are fairly pedestrian — but most Statcast measurements think his homer outburst is mostly earned. He’s learned to put his best swing on the ball more consistently, raising his hard-hit rate to a subpar but palatable 37% with Cleveland after spending most of his career at the bottom of the league.
Hernández also has begun putting the ball in the air more this season, and as a result, his barrel rate has ballooned to almost 10% so far in 2021, more than double his previous best and a solid 3% better than league average. At the same time, Statcast also says he’s gotten a bit lucky in terms of pure home run-luck, but that’s not necessarily likely to swing the other way at Guaranteed Rate Field, which is currently the fourth-most homer-friendly park in the majors, by the same measurements.
Some of Hernández’s power increase came at the expense of a little contact, but not an unreasonable amount. Hitters league-wide are striking out nearly a quarter of the time now on the whole, and Hernández’s 21% strikeout rate and 9% walk rate are more or less a lateral move from Leury García and Danny Mendick. Unlike García in particular, though, Hernández both makes contact and chases out of the zone at better than average rates, and showed an elite batting eye and ability to make contact earlier in his career. Ideally, he ought to bring a little more balance to a lineup whose aggression sometimes results in a few too many easy outs.
Most of Hernández’s power comes to the pull side, and though he’s been an almost identical hitter from either side of the plate on aggregate in his career, 11 of his 18 home runs have come from the right side in barely more than half as many plate appearances. From the left side, Hernández sprays singles all over the field, but as we well know, he’s more than capable of yanking one out if you give it to him on a tee.
His low batting average and on-base percentage might raise issues for some, but there are indicators that Hernández is poised for a bounce-back in those categories sooner or later. The 40-point drop-off from his career .273 average that he’s seen this year has been driven by some of the worst batted-ball luck of his life. His BABIP has cratered to .253, 80 points below his career average of .330. However, his expected wOBA on contact, essentially Statcast’s measurement of the kind of contact a player is making, is still at .377 this season, barely down from last year’s career-best .382. That is to say, he’s hitting the ball just as well as he was last year, or even better. The ball just hasn’t been finding as many holes. That’s almost certain to change sooner or later.
Defense & baserunning
Part of the reason Hernández has such a high natural BABIP is that he’s still one of the fastest players in the game, with sprint speed in the top 10% of the league even at age 31. It’s hard to call him much of a threat on the bases, however, as he hasn’t picked up a steal since 2019. FanGraphs’ baserunning value stat has seen him as a net positive for most of his career, this season included. Advanced defensive stats, which can be a bit sketchy, aren’t quite sure what to make of him, though he’s nothing special either way.
The truth of his defensive talent is somewhere in between all those small pluses and minuses. It’s unexceptional, but once again, unexceptional is still an upgrade over what the team has run out on the field at second base since Nick Madrigal’s season-ending injury. All of those same metrics are even more bearing on García’s defense, and while Mendick has shown he can throw the leather a bit, his bat simply doesn’t belong in the major leagues right now. Regardless, if Hernández’s offensive production holds steady, it’s hard to see a scenario in which his glove becomes any kind of problem.
It’s not as exciting as Trevor Story or Javy Báez, and the idea of Eduardo Escobar was likely doomed the moment Bob Nightengale hit Send Tweet. But no player worth getting particularly excited over is going to be available for Konnor Pilkington 1-for-1.
With streaky but generally powerful bats up and down the White Sox lineup, this is a scenario where upgrading from “worst in baseball” territory to just average is a fruitful exercise. Given the reality of a once-again barren farm system and a dearth of up-the-middle options on the trade market, this feels like an appropriately measured move, even if it hardly inspires confidence in the inevitability of a World Series run. Regardless, there won’t be many reasons to be upset at seeing César Hernández’s name on the scoreboard come tomorrow night.