Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Enrique Hernández.
The Question: Should Enrique Hernández get away from his fly ball tendencies?
While most of the focus heading into this offseason was, rightfully, on the pitching staff, the Red Sox front office was also at work trying to reshape some of the position player side of the operation as well. And specifically, it was hard not to notice the emphasis they put on versatility and athleticism. In fact, this is something Alex Cora has always talked about and something he always likes to have on his roster. No player embodies this focus more than free agent signing Enrique Hernández, who comes over from the Dodgers. He’s likely to play a lot of second base, but he’ll move all around the diamond as well and is expected to be a defensive plus wherever they happen to play him on any given day.
Defense isn’t really a question for him, at least in terms of performance. The only question on that front is where the playing time is coming from. He does figure to play mostly every day, though, so his bat does become something of a question because he’s been more mediocre than good over his career. Hernández was quite good in 2018 when he put up a 118 wRC+ over 462 plate appearances. However, he finished with a mark of 92 the year before that, and over the last two seasons he’s finished with marks of 88 and 83, respectively. Granted, these are not black hole type numbers, but they’re also not exactly what you’re looking for from what equates to an everyday player.
When you look at his numbers, there’s one thing that really stands out as far as what’s holding him back from putting up bigger production. Generally, his plate discipline is fine. He didn’t really draw walks last season, but 2020 was weird. Typically he’s been fine in that area, and he’s also been around average in terms of strikeouts. He doesn’t have huge power, but it’s also right around average. But the batting averages on balls in play have been consistently low, with .266 being his best mark over the last five years. Remember, league-average typically sits right around .300.
This would be surprising for anyone to carry such consistently low BABIPs since that’s a number that tends to fluctuate more than just about any other stat year-to-year, but it’s particularly striking for someone like Hernández. When I look at BABIP, there are three ways to expect a player to perform or underperform. One is athleticism, as faster players can beat out a few more hits. Hernández is a good athlete, though. The other is quality of contact, but again, that’s not what’s happening here. The 29-year-old (he’ll turn 30 in August) has hit the ball hard at least a league-average rate on pretty much a yearly basis. And then there’s how easy you are to shift again, but Hernández is fairly solid at using the whole field. So what gives?
The only thing I can really point to has to do with how he’s hitting the ball, and specifically the launch angle. You’ve probably heard people talking about launch angle a lot over the last few years, possibly a large percentage of those people being more “old school” fans or former players complaining about it. Whatever your feelings, it is a big part of the game now as more players are trying to hit for power and get the ball up in the air.
Hernández, whether this is a conscious decision or not, has been right there. Per Baseball Savant, his average launch angle has been fairly significantly higher than average in each of the last five years. Average launch angle can be a bit misleading, though, so it’s also worth pointing out that by Baseball Savant’s qualifications his fly ball rate has consistently come in above-average as well. He hits the ball up high in the air a lot.
Now, the launch angle approach is not for everyone. Not everyone has the raw power to take advantage of it, and the downside is that it’s harder to get non-homer hits with fly balls than it is with, say, line drives. And if you hit the ball all over the field enough to avoid being shifted — and Hernández generally qualifies, being shifted 19 percent of the time in his career, per FanGraphs — ground balls can lead to more hits too. Now, with Hernández, I wouldn’t go so far as to saw he doesn’t have the requisite power. He has solid pop, and his Isolated Power numbers have been above-average as recently as 2017 and 2018, and even average the last couple. The issues is that hasn’t really been enough in all of those years besides 2018 to make his overall offensive production come in above-average.
So the question becomes: Should he start trying to hit balls more on a line rather than trying to drive fly balls? The easiest counterargument to make off the bat would be that he is changing parks, and so that would help. I think this is partially valid, but not as much as one might think. As far as road parks in his division, he is upgrading like crazy.
But for home parks, it’s more complicated. Fenway gets the reputation as a great hitters’ park, and it is, but it’s not a homer park. Dodgers Stadium, meanwhile, is almost always one of the better home run hitting parks in the league. That said, Fenway is more friendly for doubles and triples, and to an extent for BABIP in general. Whether Hernández would be able to take advantage of that better with a fly ball approach or a line drive approach is a more complex question, and something I’ve frankly gone back and forth on many times over the last day while I’ve been thinking about this.
One of the biggest points in the favor of Hernández abandoning the fly ball approach at least to some extent is the changing of the baseballs for 2021. There was a report from The Athletic earlier this month that the league was “deadening” the baseball a bit for the 2021 season. The extent to which this will affect the flight of fly balls is not entirely clear, but the ball is expected to not fly quite as far. As I said, Hernández isn’t exactly a fringe power hitter so I don’t think he’ll be extremely affected by this, but it is a point in favor of the idea that going for power is at least a bit less advantageous than it once was.
I came into this post ready to be 100 percent on board with Hernández changing his style up and going for more singles and line drives, and then using his athleticism and Fenway’s dimensions to his advantage for doubles and triples. I think I’m still leaning in that direction, largely because this Red Sox lineup doesn’t really need his ceiling so much as they need the floor raised, and I think this does that. On the other hand, there is a case for those fly balls to lead to even more doubles at Fenway, particularly for a right-handed hitter to use the Monster to his advantage. At the end of the day, I certainly cede to Hernández and Alex Cora on this one. But one thing is clear: If Hernández is to exceed expectations at the plate, he’ll need to find a way to reverse his career-long trend of below-average BABIPs.