One of the difficult things about evaluating players during an entire baseball season is brushing off initial impressions. Opinions you form in April can often solidify and paint how you feel about a player well into September and even October. If a guy slugs 10 home runs in the first month, you might consider them an MVP candidate all season even if they only hit 10 more all season. On the other side of the coin, a slow start can doom a player to being seen as a bust no matter how much better they play the rest of the year.
Enrique Hernández is a perfect example of a player who could have fallen into the latter camp. After inking a two-year, $14 million deal with the Red Sox prior to the 2021 season, the former Dodger and 2020 World Series champion looked completely overmatched in the first month of this season. He slashed just .230/.271/.400 while posting a 77 wRC+ in April. To make matters worse, he also spent a great deal of time hitting out of the leadoff position, putting an even brighter spotlight on his struggles. At the time, when you considered that he had posted back-to-back below-average offensive seasons for the Dodgers in the two years before signing with the Red Sox, things looked rather bleak for a player who was clearly meant to be a key contributor.
But then Hernández started to improve, slowly at first. In May, he was roughly league average, posting a 99 wRC+ and slashing .255/.328/.400. In June, he was slightly better but still in that average range (102 wRC+, .230/.317/.437). Then we got to July and Hernández skipped the hitting like an above average hitter phase and began hitting like an absolute star. During the month, Hernández slashed .274/.381/.568, which led to a 153 wRC+. That mark ranked second among Red Sox hitters with at least 50 plate appearances in the month, falling behind only Rafael Devers. Hernández also tied with Devers for the team-lead in fWAR during the month.
Hernández has maintained his hot hitting ways in August. In fact, although it’s obviously a smaller sample at this point, he’s actually been a bit better this month in some categories. He has a higher batting average (.281) and on-base percentage (.417) in August compared with July even if his wRC+ is lower (134). Still, any player would be more than happy with a mark of 134, so it’s not like it’s been a major downgrade.
One of the hallmarks of Hernández’s summer surge has been a surprising run of power. Hernández has never been much of a slugger, but he mashed six home runs in July alone and is already up to 15 this season, putting him just six behind his career-high with plenty of time left to get there. Although his mark in isolated power (.201) isn’t the best of his career, it’s still a sizable leap from the last two seasons and when you consider his slow start, it’s even more impressive.
Hernández has also made a name for himself offensively by being aggressive. He regularly takes a big cut at the first pitch of an at-bat, something that has long been considered gauche in a world where being patient is valued. However, you can’t be angry at the results. Entering Wednesday, when swinging at the first pitch, Hernández was slashing .313/.321/.563 with two home runs. He has better numbers in more hitter-friendly counts, of course, but being that effective right at the start of an at-bat has to make pitchers nervous.
Despite the ultra-aggression he’s displayed, Hernández is actually walking relatively frequently. His walk rate currently sits at 10.4 percent, which is up from just 4.1 percent a year ago. For context, the league average rate is 8.8 percent this season. As you might expect, Hernández has really boosted his free pass production during the last month and a half. He had a 13.3 percent walk rate in July and is up to an incredible 18.1 percent in August after producing marks below 10 percent in the first three months of the season. Hernández has also reduced his strikeout frequency over the course of the season to coincide with his rise in walking.
Although a look at Hernández’s Baseball Savant page shows that he’s making decent contact but not scorching the ball that much more than average, his offensive improvement is definitely legit. His expected weighted on-base average (wOBA) sits at .340 currently and his actual wOBA is nearly identical (.341). In addition, he actually has a pretty low batting average on balls in play (.282), as the league average is .291. That’s right, there’s an argument to be made that Hernández has actually been a bit unlucky despite his recent run of success.
Hernández chose a pretty great time to start becoming a potent piece of the lineup. In April, he could hide behind hot starts from J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Devers. But now he’s been able to stand right with those guys, giving the Red Sox lineup more depth and allowing the team to do more than just wait for the heart of the lineup to get things moving. In addition, Hernández’s hot July coincided with and helped offset slumps from Bogaerts, Alex Verdugo and Hunter Renfroe, among others.
If Hernández had done what he did in July for a week or even a couple weeks, you could ignore it, but he’s sustained this level of success and now it’s really showing in his overall body of work. Hernández has been 13 percent better than league average at the plate based on wRC+ and he is slashing a respectable .251/.339/.452 and that’s with his miserable April weighing those numbers down. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also provided pretty solid defense at multiple positions, but that’s another conversation. It’s a good thing the Red Sox didn’t overreact to those first few weeks of the season and stuck with Hernández because even if he dug himself a hole with those early impressions, he has climbed out to have a great year.