The Red Sox are rolling right now, as I’m sure you know if you’re reading this. If you don’t know, well, first of all welcome and second of all they have won six straight games after dropping their first three. They’re clicking on most cylinders right now and it wouldn’t be accurate to narrow down all of their success to one part of the roster. But the offense specifically is on a roll.
Coming into the year it was fairly clear that any success from this team was going to be in large part due to the core of the lineup, and that core has been on fire of late. J.D. Martinez is deservedly getting most of the praise, but the rest of that heart — i.e. Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Alex Verdugo, Christian Vázquez — has been hitting well too. It’s all the more impressive that they’ve been able to get on this kind of roll even without their leadoff hitter following suit.
Before the season even started, the decision to bat Kiké Hernández in the leadoff spot was already a controversial one from Alex Cora. Keaton talked about this some during spring training, and I largely agree with the point. It’s always important to mention that batting order really doesn’t matter all that much at the end of the day, and unless you’re doing something wild like putting your best hitter in the ninth spot the difference in win total will be marginal. Still, I would’ve liked to put Verdugo in the leadoff spot and then follow him with the other four core batters in some order, but alas it was not my decision to make.
The early returns for Hernández have not been very good, one of the rare blemishes for the Red Sox roster to this point. It wasn’t crucial for him to come out of the gate hot, as we’re seeing right now, but it would have been nice considering the mild controversy around putting him in that top spot. Quieting the critics like myself out of the gate would have gone a long way. Instead, Hernández is hitting just .237/.286/.368 for a 77 wRC+. In other words, by that wRC+ metric that measures overall offensive output, he has been 23 percent worse than the league-average hitter. The good news is he’s actually making good contact and showing an approach that one would hope translates to better numbers sooner than later.
Obviously there are sample size issues with all of these numbers, both in terms of those on-the-surface numbers above as well as what we’re going to talk about for the rest of this post. That’s a requisite disclaimer at this point in the year. But it is worth looking at how he is hitting the ball relative to the base numbers he’s put up. Baseball Savant has all of that covered and you can check for yourself, but a few highlights: Hernández is barreling the ball (the best contact a batter can make based on exit velocity and launch angle) 13 percent of the time, almost double his full-season career-high. He’s carrying a hard-hit rate of 47 percent, which would be a career-high. His expected line, based on quality of contact and contact rates, would produce a .395 wOBA (the non-park adjusted wRC+), which is more than 100 points higher than his actual wOBA.
Now, it should be mentioned that these batted ball numbers can sometimes be treated as being a bit more predictive than they actually are. Just because a player is hitting the ball harder than his numbers would suggest doesn’t mean regression to the mean is definitely coming, especially at this kind of sample size. Hernández could very easily start hitting the ball with less authority, and then we’re back to square one. But there’s more reason to be confident in a turnaround from someone hitting like this than someone with the same base numbers but fewer hard-hit balls.
And the quality of contact isn’t the only thing to like about Hernández early in this season. I’ve also been impressed with his approach at the plate, which actually kind of flies in the face of a traditional leadoff hitter. The former Dodger has been really aggressive this season, swinging just under 50 percent of the time. It would be the second highest rate of his career, and about three percentage points higher than his career average. Even better, that aggression is showing up on pitches in the zone. His swing rate there is up to 75 percent early in the season, which would be four percentage points higher than his career-high and nearly nine percentage points higher than his career average.
Now, like I said, this isn’t really in line with what we normally expect from a leadoff hitter. This is a spot in the lineup that is typically known for patience. I actually don’t mind turning that expectation on its head, though. Aggression and not waiting around deep into counts has been a hallmark of the Alex Cora Red Sox, and it applied to the leadoff spot even when Mookie Betts was hitting there. Cora wants his players to hit hittable pitches whenever they see them.
In an era with more relievers than ever before, getting pitch counts up is less important then ever. At this point, I look at the top of the lineup no longer as a place to draw a bunch of walks, but rather set the tone. That’s why I’d prefer to have my best hitters up there, but Hernández is at least not waiting around. If he sees a pitch to hit, he should swing and hit it hard, hopefully setting the tone for the rest of the lineup.
If I were in charge, I still would put the lineup as I described above, with Hernández hitting in the back half. And looking at his base numbers, it would be pretty easy to take a victory lap on that opinion. (Which, of course, is shared by many.) That’s oversimplifying things, though. The super utility man is hitting the ball better than those numbers would suggest, and utilizing an approach that should allow him to continue that trend. All of this is happening under a small sample umbrella and we’re still at the point where anything can and will change on a dime. But all things considered, Hernández is starting the season off doing the right things, even if it’s not necessarily showing up in the stat sheet just yet.