Cleveland and Baltimore Solidify Their Up-the-Middle Defense

It was a busy day for free agent infielders yesterday. A flurry of moves saw Marcus Semien, Andrelton Simmons, and Tommy La Stella find new homes in Toronto, Minnesota, and San Francisco, respectively. Those big names overshadowed a couple of smaller signings that occurred earlier in the day. Cleveland re-signed Cesar Hernandez to a one-year, $5 million deal with a club option for 2022, while Baltimore signed Hernandez’s former double-play partner, Freddy Galvis, to a one-year, $1.5 million contract.

Both switch-hitting infielders came up through the Phillies farm system and established themselves at the major league level around the same time. Galvis left the Phillies in 2018 and bounced from San Diego to Toronto to Cincinnati over the last two years. Hernandez lasted in Philadelphia a little longer; 2020 was his first season on a new team. Both are defensively-minded infielders who have holes in their offense that have held them back from bringing in a bigger payday.

Hernandez is clearly the better of the two. He’s the reigning AL Gold Glove winner at second base and has quietly been one of the better second basemen in the league since claiming a full-time role in 2015. During that window, he’s sixth in the majors in WAR among qualified second basemen, accumulating 14.3 wins. Last year, Cleveland signed him to a one-year, $6.25 million deal to be their primary second baseman. That deal worked out nicely and they’ve returned to the same well, albeit with a new shortstop installed to his right — either Amed Rosario or Andrés Giménez.

His keen eye at the plate has always been the strongest part of his offensive profile, but he saw his walk rate dip to 6.7% in 2019 after posting a 11.1% rate over the previous four years. The most confusing aspect of his 2019 was his swing rate. He was much more aggressive at the plate, upping his swing rate to 45.5%. That would explain why his walk rate fell but he made enough contact with all those additional swings that his strikeout rate actually fell, though it didn’t offset the lack of free passes. Last Fall, Tony Wolfe wrote about Hernandez’s slipping plate discipline in his final year in Philadelphia:

“There is some real head-scratching to be done over Hernández’s 2019 season, but the numbers we’ve seen seem to indicate this year saw him employ a completely different approach from the one he’d used throughout his career. That provides an easy excuse for his struggles, but it also makes him more difficult to project. His changes resulted in a few positives, but overall, they didn’t make him a better hitter.”

His plate discipline didn’t bounce back completely last year, but it was markedly better than it was in 2019.

Cesar Hernandez plate discipline, 2015–2020
Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
2015–2018 22.8% 63.6% 41.5% 80.9% 45.7% 7.9%
2019 29.8% 65.4% 45.5% 84.4% 44.2% 7.0%
2020 25.7% 64.5% 42.4% 81.8% 43.2% 7.7%

All of his plate discipline metrics trended back towards where they were before 2019 and both his walk rate and strikeout rate rose as a result. The additional strikeouts are a bit of a concern, but his overall approach was improved by being less aggressive and selectively swinging at pitches he could handle.

With a better approach at the plate, Hernandez was able to build on the few positive changes he enjoyed during his last year in Philadelphia. He posted the highest ISO of his career in 2019 and followed that up with an ISO just five points lower in 2020. But the underlying metrics show some real improvement when he made contact with the ball. He posted career-highs in average exit velocity and hard hit rate and the second highest barrel rate and expected wOBA on contact of his career. He only hit three home runs in 2020, but he did lead the AL in doubles. All that solid contact paired with his plate discipline returning to form led to a 110 wRC+, the second highest mark of his career.

Adding Hernandez to Cleveland’s roster moves Rosario and Giménez into basically the same situation they were in in New York. Either they’ll share the job at short or one of them will have to move off their preferred position. With Cleveland’s outfield bereft of talent, it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of them — probably Rosario — taking reps in center field during spring training.

A year after they signed José Iglesias to a similar one-year deal (and turned his career year into two prospects this offseason), Baltimore signed Galvis to provide a veteran glove at short again. Offensively, he’s nearly the opposite of Hernandez. He has a little pop in his bat but really struggles to get on base at a regular clip. He did make some strides at the plate in 2020. He posted the highest walk rate and ISO of his career while lowering his strikeout rate by nearly six points. And despite a terribly unlucky .231 BABIP, he posted the highest wRC+ of his career as well.

But despite the rosy picture all those career-highs paint, there were some concerning trends underneath the hood. His hard hit rate took a steep tumble, falling from 36.4% to 27.9%, one of the lowest hard hit rates in the majors. The reason why he was able to post the highest power output of his career even though his hard hit rate fell so precipitously was because of how those hard hit balls were distributed. When he hit the ball harder than 95 mph, his average launch angle was 18.6 degrees. But on balls hit softer than 95 mph, his average launch angle was 8.4 degrees. Hitting just enough hard hit balls in the air saved him from being a total loss at the plate, but that’s not a profile that bodes well for his batting average.

Defensively, he was a bit of a mess in 2020 as well. Per Statcast’s outs above average, he’s been the fifth best shortstop in the majors since 2017, converting 25 outs above average during that time. But most of that glove work came during the first three years of that sample. In 2020, he was one of the worst shortstops in the majors, costing the Reds 3 outs below average. The other advanced defensive metrics saw a similar dip in fielding prowess.

For such a low investment, betting on his glove to return to its previous norms is an easy bet for the Orioles to make. Baltimore doesn’t really have a better alternative on their roster at this point. He’s not the most exciting addition to the roster, but he does make the team better at a key position. And maybe he’ll follow Iglesias’ footsteps and post a career year in 2021.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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2 years ago

Oh man I was so close on the first part of this. The lack of the option
kind of messes up the rest of the prediction.