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One Big Question: Is Enrique Hernández now a full-time center fielder?

The second base rumors will remain unless the position is filled when free agency resumes.

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Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Enrique Hernández.

The Question: Is Enrique Hernández destined to stay in center field?

Enrique Hernández’s versatility was something that the Red Sox valued when signing him to a two-year, $14-million deal prior to last season. The expectation in spring training was that he would play the majority of the time at second base, while getting plenty of work in the outfield as well. In fact, the former Los Angeles Dodger had a ton of experience all over the diamond, entering the season having played 381 games in the outfield (127 LF, 179 CF, 75 RF), 200 games at second base, 82 at shortstop, 33 at third base, and 15 at first base. On opening day, Hernández led off against the Baltimore Orioles and played second base.

Now, there is similar discussion entering 2022 about Hernández playing that same hybrid role, or even moving back to second base full-time if the Red Sox are more aggressive in the outfield market. I’m here to throw cold water on that idea.

There seems to be a short memory of the kind of defense Hernández was playing in the outfield last season, both in terms of the glove and with the arm. As May and June rolled along and the Red Sox were rolling through the competition in first place, Alex Cora was rolling Hernández out in center field most nights, and seemed to hint at that being his “best outfield” in a few post games. Then, during a postseason where Hernández was getting a bit more attention from the media than usual thanks to his .408 average, five home runs, and nine RBI in 11 games, Cora was asked about his defensive value. The manager admitted that he had been wrong about two separate things in his evaluation of Hernández in spring training.

“Well, he was our second baseman, right? Coming in, I still say two things I was wrong in (during) spring training. Somebody asked me about who was better in center field, and I actually put him (Hernández) in left field for some reason. Like ‘No, if we go that way it’s going to be Alex (Verdugo) in center and Kiké (Hernández) in left, something like that.’ And then I always said if we had the lead he was going to play second base most of the time.”

For the record, Enrique wound up playing zero games in left field in 2021.

Cora added, “And then the way he (Hernández) played centerfield. It is eye-opening. That first step is amazing, the instincts, the arm, the decisions, the communication. We had one of the best defensively in ’18 and ’19, and he’s still great, Jackie, right? But this kid is up there with them — with the best of the best defensively. And we’re very proud of him.” The “Jackie” that Cora references there is Jackie Bradley Jr. who is back with the team in 2022, meaning two of the ‘best of the best’ are in town entering the season. The praise does sound a bit hyperbolic, but there is a lot that backs that up. Let’s start with the defensive metrics.

Baseball Savant’s “Outs Above Average” metric put Hernández in the 89th percentile in 2021, which ticks up to the 92nd percentile during his time as an outfielder (11th out of 125 qualified outfielders). He was +9 outs above average, with a +5 going to his right (towards left field), a +3 going to his left, a +3 coming in on balls, and a minus-2 going back. For comparison, Hernández’s OAA was a minus-4 at second base, 34th out of 37 qualified second basemen.

Savant also measures “Outfielder Jump”, which is an area of the website that makes a rather mundane concept very fun to look at, at least for a baseball dork like myself. Hernández got a better jump on outfield fly balls than any other player in baseball. With the idea of “jump” being the first three seconds off the bat, the “reaction” is the first 1.5 seconds. Hernández’s reaction time was by far better than anyone in the league, while simultaneously getting taking the worst route on the ball in all of MLB. Here’s what that looks like in graphical form. Notice the wild outlier in the lower right.

Baseball Savant | Outfielder Jump

Behind Hernández, the next three worst “route takers” in the outfield last year were Trent Grisham, Ramon Laureano, and Jackie Bradley Jr. Forgive me for not being concerned about this metric among that company. The poor routes didn’t hurt Hernández because his reaction time was out of this world. Cora wasn’t kidding when he said, “that first step is amazing.” Within that Outfielder Jump leaderboard, you can sort to see who caught the highest percentage of balls that were deemed 2-stars or above, in terms of difficulty. Here is how the Red Sox outfield measured up on those plays in 2021:

  • Enrique Hernández: 28/45 (62.2%), 12th in MLB (of 95 qualified OFs), +9 OAA
  • Alex Verdugo: 22/52 (42.3%), 68th in MLB, -4 OAA
  • Hunter Renfroe: 31/76 (40.8%), 72nd in MLB, -3 OAA
  • Kyle Schwarber: 10/33 (30.3%), 88th in MLB, -5 OAA

A couple of other metrics check out for Hernández as well, using FangGaphs. Their Defensive Runs Saved leaderboard has Hernández sixth out of 158 OF (min: 300 innings in OF) with 16 runs saved, while saving zero runs at second base, placing 27th of 40. Using UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), Hernández was 10th out of 158 OF with a +7.4 rating, where he was also 27th of 40 at second base with a 0.3 rating.

Finally, the eye test. Without any spring training highlights to see yet, let’s take a look at some of the great defensive plays that Hernández made in the outfield last year. We’ve talked about jump, reaction, range, but don’t forget about the cannon in the first 30 seconds below.

My personal favorite throw of the year didn’t even result in an out. The night after Hernández had thrown out the tying run at the plate to beat the A’s (seen in the previous video), he went back on the game-winning sac fly in the 13th inning. About 20 feet from the warning track, he got little to no momentum behind it, and threw a missile on zero hops to Vázquez’s glove a split-second too late.

And some diving catches, because why not?

It’s hard for me to see a scenario where the Red Sox willingly go into the season with Hernandez as their starting second baseman. Even if an outfielder like Seiya Suzuki joins the team, I would expect him to be the right fielder with Jackie Bradley backing up all three positions. Hernández has the endorsement of his manager, the support of numerous metrics, and the confidence in himself as well. He reportedly said in a live video during the offseason, “(Centerfield) is my position now, the Red Sox prospects better start playing another position.” Don’t need to sell me.