Enrique Hernández’s Unique Skillset Heads to Boston

Enrique Hernández’s phone should have been busy over the last three months, because he’s the kind of player every team has a roster spot for. If you have a hole in your lineup at second base, third base, or any outfield spot, consider Hernández. If your starting infield is set but you need a good replacement off the bench, consider Hernández. If your starting outfield is set but you want a backup who can capably man center, consider Hernández. If you simply want to add a veteran with loads of postseason experience to your clubhouse, consider Hernández. It is impossible not to find a use for one of the few players who can play every position in the field (minus catcher) and whose asking price is modest enough that even Pittsburgh could afford it. The only question is whether Hernández will hit.

The Red Sox believe he will, signing Hernández to a two-year contract worth $14 million on Friday — the only multi-year deal the team has handed out this winter. Boston reportedly agreed to terms with the former Dodger after missing out on Jurickson Profar, a similarly versatile player who signed with San Diego for the same AAV but for one additional year. As noted over on The Athletic, Hernández could address either of Boston’s two most glaring needs at second base or in center field and provide assistance at any other spot at which he might be needed.

Red Sox fans are no stranger to having a Swiss Army Knife on the roster. That same role was occupied for most of the last decade by Brock Holt, before he signed with Milwaukee a year ago. Like Hernández, Holt was able to log lots of playing time by providing serviceable defense everywhere on the field. But while Holt’s lack of pop limited his potential to be an impact hitter, the same can’t be said about Hernández, who has a .195 ISO going back to 2017. That power has had a knack for showing up in big moments during his playoff career, including two different game-tying homers in last year’s NLCS, one of which was a pinch-hit dinger in Game 7.

While the power in Hernández’s offensive game has been consistent over the years, another key aspect has not — one that’s led to major swings in his overall production. After a 2018 breakout that saw him hit .256/.336/.470 (118 wRC+), his line has fallen to .235/.296/.410 (86 wRC+) over the last two seasons. The biggest issue is his plate patience. After holding a double-digit walk rate for three straight years, his abilities there seem to have fallen off a cliff.

Such a steep decline suggests a breakdown somewhere in his approach, but while Hernández has become a more aggressive swinger, his overall profile doesn’t look dramatically different from before. If we compare his 2020 to 2017, when his walk rate was a career-best 12%, his swing rate is just three points higher, his chase rate is less than five points higher, and his contact rate is just over three points higher.

Those aren’t insignificant differences, but they aren’t large enough to make you believe Hernández must be Jose Peraza now. He also isn’t being pitched to all that differently; in fact, he saw fewer strikes in 2020 than he did in ’17. You can’t simply blame his bad luck entirely on the shortened 2020 season causing flukey sample sizes either, since this is a trend that began in 2019. But if I were a Red Sox fan, I would be a little heartened by what I’m seeing under the hood.

Walk rate aside, Hernández has looked pretty steady for a few years now. His BABIPs have fallen in the .254–.266 range in each of the last four seasons, which could be a symptom of his consistently high fly-ball and pull rates. His exit velocities from the last five seasons have also hovered within 0.7 mph of one another, and his sprint speed ranking (61st percentile in 2020) is pretty much where it has always been. That consistency even extends to his durability: Since the start of 2017, Hernández has landed on the injured list just once — a minor hand sprain that cost him less than a month of time in ’19.

Boston certainly hopes for a strong year at the plate for Hernández, but the 29-year-old would probably need to bottom out offensively for him to not secure a ton of playing time. Assuming no additional moves, Hernández best fits as the starter at second base, where he’s the team’s best option. If the Red Sox want to ensure substantial playing time there for Michael Chavis, though, the right-handed hitting Hernández could fit nicely as a platoon for left-handed hitting outfielders Andrew Benintendi and Alex Verdugo. I would also guess that Hernández is the best back-up shortstop available when Xander Bogaerts needs a day off. As talented as the top half of Boston’s lineup is, the bottom half is much less reliable. A player like Hernández doesn’t just fill a hole in the starting lineup; he makes Plan B for a number of other spots much easier to conceptualize.

That makes it a bit of a surprise that Los Angeles let him walk. Perhaps it didn’t feel the need to match Boston’s offer for a player who wasn’t going to start unless an injury occurred, which is understandable. The Dodgers also maintain a similarly versatile utility player in Chris Taylor, who’s coming off a much better 2020 season than Hernández. Still, roster flexibility has long been a point of emphasis for Los Angeles, and I would feel a lot more comfortable calling Hernández’s name in a pinch than I would, say, Zach McKinstry.

Hernandez isn’t the first player to leave the defending champs this winter, either, and he probably won’t be the last. Justin Turner and Joc Pederson have yet to find homes, and it’s unsure whether the Dodgers will bring either one back (though Turner seems to be a favorite to rejoin the team). Aside from retaining Blake Treinen and adding Tommy Kahnle and Corey Knebel in the bullpen, they’ve been quiet. They’ll still be fine, in the grand scheme of things — I mean, you saw them last year — but letting players like Hernández walk means gambling that you’ve developed someone who can be just as valuable next year. We aren’t talking about replacing Mookie Betts here, and I trust Los Angeles to fill its bench with good homegrown players more than anyone. But it’s a gamble nonetheless. The Dodgers’ competition in the NL is hoping these lower-tier departures add up. The Red Sox are hoping the low-cost additions they’ve made in recent days will too.





Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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gtagomori
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gtagomori

He’s more valuable to a winning team than his stats suggest. He plugs in anywhere and adds defense and athleticism. He’s a clubhouse plus (or so it seems as I live in LA and have followed the team for decades)

He deserves another chance to start.

Prophet of the Sandlot
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Prophet of the Sandlot

I see pieces the Sox will potentially flip to contending teams in July….Cora knows him well, too. Richards, Ottavino, Hernandez…all chips to flip for prospects.