Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Marco Hernández.
2019 in one sentence
Marco Hernández finally fought his way back to the majors in 2019, allowing for some optimism regarding his future despite a general lack of production.
Hernández is the one player of all the guys we’ll be reviewing in this series whose biggest positive is simply being there. That sounds like an awfully low bar to clear, of course, and on its face it is. Playing in the majors is absurd for the average American, but for someone to play enough on a team that, while disappointing, won more games than it lost that ability should be understood. Of course, we know Hernández is not a typical circumstance. Acquired in exchange for Felix Doubront back in the winter of 2014, Hernández first came up in 2016 looking like the real deal. Then, injuries took over. He last played in the bigs early in 2017 and has undergone multiple shoulder surgeries since then. Rehabbing once then having it fail and undergoing a second surgery is enough to break plenty of players and could have easily marked the end of a once promising professional career. Hernández worked his way back into game action in 2019, though, and amazingly only needed 56 games in the minors to show the Red Sox higher ups that he was ready for another chance. Simply being here is the expectation for most. For Hernández, it was everything.
As far as the actual performance on the field goes, the overall numbers look overwhelmingly negative. That wasn’t always the case, though, and Hernández gave fans plenty of confidence upon his initial call-up. The infielder was first brought up to Boston on June 8 and excelled in a stretch that spanned 30 games until August 13. In that time, he hit an impressive .338/.365/.493 for a 123 wRC+. During that hot streak he was in the same company as guys like Yandy Díaz, Andrew Benintendi, Eugenio Suárez and Aaron Judge. It wouldn’t last, as we’ll get to later, but through this time Hernández looked like he was ready for a relatively big role in 2020.
The biggest key for Hernández at the plate both during that hot stretch and just in general is his ability to succeed on balls in play. The 27-year-old doesn’t hit for a ton of power, doesn’t draw many walks and probably should make a little more contact, but he does have a swing that is conducive to getting hits. Over that hot stretch, he posted a .415 batting average on balls in play. Clearly, that is not sustainable, but we’re talking about a guy who hits line drives, sprays the ball over the field and has speed. That lends itself to inherent streakiness, and when it’s going well it will go really well.
That speed is also a strength that we saw for much of this year. The Red Sox generally haven’t had a ton of speed on their bench over the years, and while it’s not a major issue for the roster it certainly helps to have a burner on the bench for late-game situations. Hernández has become that guy, with Statcast putting him in the 96th percentile for sprint speed. There’s some work to be done on the technical and mental side of running the bases, but Hernández showed some athleticism that should come in handy as he gets more experienced against major-league competition.
For as great as it was for Hernández to make it back to the majors, and as exciting as that stretch immediately after his call-up was, it was overall a disappointing year. To say that the numbers fell off a cliff after that hot stretch would be an understatement. Including those 30 games mentioned above, he still finished the year hitting just .250/.279/.338 for a 58 wRC+. Looking only at the time following that hot streak, Hernández played in 31 games and hit .169/.200/.195. That is a wRC+ of -3. Yes, that is a negative sign. There were 302 players who received at least 75 plate appearances in that stretch, and only one (Jake Rogers of the Tigers) was worse at the plate. For all of the positivity around his year, at the end of the day it’s still hard to trust someone who put up a 58 wRC+ with a major role the following year without any sort of stable backup plan.
There were a lot of issues for Hernández that led to the demise, but the biggest was his lack of control of the strike zone. This was actually an issue for the lefty even when he was going well, but the BABIP helped mask it. As I said above, this is a player who does not walk much and strikes out more than you want. Over his entire stretch in the majors, a total of 61 games and 155 plate appearances, he struck out 27 percent of the time and walked just under two percent of the time. That just isn’t going to work, particularly if you are also putting up an Isolated Power below .100. Once again, with his strikeout and walk numbers, Hernández found himself among company he does not want. In fact, among the 411 players who received at least 150 plate appearances in 2019 he was dead last in K/BB ratio. Just about everything was wrong with his plate discipline, as he not only swung at pitches out of the zone at one of the highest rates in the game but also swung and missed at sky-high rates on pitches both in and out of the zone. It’s okay to be aggressive — many aggressive hitters have plenty of success in this league. You have to make contact at a high rate, though. The long, multi-year layoff against major-league pitching surely played a role for Hernández here, as did the likely fatigue through a long season, but at the same time something has to fundamentally change with his approach if he’s going to succeed.
The Big Question
Can Marco Hernández recover from his injuries and make it back to the majors?
Yes. I don’t really need to go into it more than that, right?
I really want to believe in Hernández moving forward. I was very high on him as he was making his way through the system, and as I think I’ve gotten across here I admire the strength and perseverance it’s taken for him to get back to this place. I’m just not sure there’s enough strength in his bat at this point to make up for his other shortcomings. I still have hope that he can be a really strong bench piece for a good team and I’m aware that I could very well be playing into some recency bias, but I’m not sure I’m confident enough at this point that I’d let Brock Holt walk without some sort of effort to bring him back.