Needing a Second Baseman, White Sox Hail Cesar Hernandez

The White Sox have been in need of a stopgap at second base ever since Nick Madrigal tore tendons in his right hamstring and required season-ending surgery in mid-June. Since then, they’ve frequently been connected to trade candidates such as Adam Frazier and Eduardo Escobar, but with both of those players dealt within the past week and the team getting nowhere in its pursuit of Trevor Story, they had to turn elsewhere to fill the spot, though they didn’t have to go far. On Thursday they acquired Cesar Hernandez from division rival Cleveland.

In exchange for Hernandez, Cleveland will receive Konnor Pilkington, a 23-year-old lefty who was the team’s third-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2018, and who had been pitching for Chicago’s Double-A Birmingham affiliate. This is just the fourth trade between the two teams have since the formation of the AL Central in 1994. In the most recent one in December 2018, Cleveland traded Yonder Alonso to Chicago for minor league outfielder Alex Call.

The 31-year-old Hernandez was in his second season with Cleveland after a seven-year run in Philadelphia, which non-tendered him following a mediocre 2019 season. After an excellent 2020 campaign (.283/.355/.408, 110 wRC+, 1.9 WAR) during which he made the prorated share of $6.25 million plus incentives, he took a pay cut, signing a $5 million, one-year deal with a $6 million club option and no buyout for 2022.

Relative to 2020, Hernandez has taken steps backwards on both sides of the ball. While his 100 wRC+ (.231/.307/.431) matches his career average, the shape of his production has changed significantly. He’s hitting the ball in the air more often than ever, and has already set a career high with 18 home runs, topping the 15 he hit with the Phillies in 2018. Earlier this week, while writing about the increased frequency with which Chris Taylor is hitting pulled fly balls that turn into home runs, I was surprised to find that while the list of players with the highest wRC+ on such balls included thumpers like Shohei Ohtani, Bryce Harper, Fernando Tatis Jr., Max Muncy, and José Abreu, it was Hernandez who topped the list, though he’s since fallen into a tie for fourth:

Highest wRC+ on Pulled Fly Balls
Player Tm PA HR AVG SLG wRC+
Shohei Ohtani LAA 25 15 .720 2.680 815
Jose Abreu CHW 18 12 .706 2.824 797
Bryce Harper PHI 18 11 .765 2.824 783
Fernando Tatis Jr. SDP 27 17 .731 2.692 762
Cesar Hernandez CLE 19 11 .722 2.667 762
Brandon Belt SFG 16 8 .688 2.500 728
Yasmani Grandal CHW 15 9 .600 2.400 706
Ryan McMahon COL 17 10 .647 2.471 697
Seth Brown OAK 18 10 .611 2.333 695
Kyle Schwarber WSN 18 11 .647 2.588 691
Chris Taylor LAD 20 12 .600 2.400 682
Kris Bryant CHC 17 9 .647 2.353 682
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. TOR 17 8 .647 2.235 674
Jared Walsh LAA 21 12 .571 2.286 666
Freddie Freeman ATL 17 9 .647 2.294 665
Joey Votto CIN 15 8 .643 2.429 642
Jesse Winker CIN 20 9 .650 2.200 641
Max Muncy LAD 19 10 .579 2.211 628
Justin Turner LAD 15 7 .600 2.133 615

Hernandez’s surprising smack in that department isn’t actually that new; in 2018-19, he hit 26 such homers on 64 pulled fly balls en route to a 1.841 SLG and 501 wRC+. Elsewhere, he’s barreling the ball with greater frequency than ever, and his hard-hit rate is near last year’s career high, but his overall batted ball profile is unremarkable:

Cesar Hernandez Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB GB% FB% EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2018 1.37 45.9% 33.6% 85.8 3.5% 27.5% .253 .230 .362 .334 .320 .304
2019 1.69 48.6% 28.7% 86.0 2.5% 28.3% .279 .259 .408 .368 .315 .298
2020 1.79 49.1% 27.5% 89.1 3.9% 37.1% .283 .273 .408 .396 .335 .328
2021 1.24 45.1% 36.3% 88.6 9.4% 36.1% .231 .250 .431 .420 .319 .328

One thing that’s odd about Hernandez’s production is that despite his 90th percentile sprint speed, which has helped him leg out eight infield hits, he didn’t attempt a single stolen base during his tenure in Cleveland, that despite the team ranking fifth in steals this year, and his having averaged 16 steals and a 72% success rate over his final five seasons in Philadelphia. The White Sox run less often than Cleveland as a percentage of opportunities (4.0% of times when there’s a man on first or second with the next base open, compared to 4.8% for Cleveland), and at a lower success rate (69% vs. 82%). If the White Sox encourage Hernandez to run, he might diversify the offense a bit.

Even if not, Hernandez should be a solid upgrade over the two players who have manned the keystone in Madrigal’s absence, namely Leury García and Danny Mendick. The pair has hit just .216/.322/.327 while playing second base, though Garcia (.247/.325/.348, 90 wRC+ overall) has been much closer to adequate than Mendick (.200/.308/.272, 70 wRC+ overall). On Thursday, as if to underscore the team’s need for a new second baseman, manager Tony La Russa went so far as to start slugging outfielder/first baseman Andrew Vaughn there despite his having never played the position professionally or in college.

Hernandez couldn’t possibly be as bad defensively as an out-of-position slugger, but it’s worth keeping an eye on his current defensive metrics, which are nothing to write home about (-6 DRS and -3 OAA, but 1.9 UZR). While last year’s strong numbers (6 DRS, 4 OAA, 3.8 UZR) during the shortened season helped him win his first Gold Glove — remember, the winners were entirely based on the SABR Defensive Index — those were something of an aberration relative to his career. He’s generally within a few runs above average, plus or minus, depending upon your choice of metric.

The trade would seem to constitute a white flag for Cleveland. The team is running second in the AL Central, but at 50-49, they’re 8 1/2 games behind the White Sox, with a 0.9% chance of winning the division and a 0.9% chance of securing a Wild Card spot. For them, getting a longer look at Andrés Giménez at second base, and perhaps sorting through the likes of prospects Gabriel Arias, Tyler Freeman, and Owen Miller, is worth more than that lottery ticket.

As for Pilkington, despite unimpressive numbers at Mississippi State, including a 5+ ERA in his junior year, the White Sox drafted him based on his pitch data, and especially the shape of his fastball. Still, coming into last season, Eric Longenhagen placed the 6-foot-3, 230-pound lefty 21st on the White Sox’s Top Prospects List, characterizing him as “physically mature and wielding vanilla stuff,” including an 88-92 mph fastball that could touch 94. He was not among the prospects whom the team kept at its alternate training site during the shortened season, and on the team’s most recent prospect list, he slipped out of the rankings and into the “High Probability Depth Arms” category, where Longenhagen called him “an SEC college performance prospect with below average stuff. He’s a sixth starter type.”

That said, Pilkington’s stock appears to be on the rise. At Birmingham, he’s pitched to a 3.48 ERA and 4.22 FIP, with a 30.5% strikeout rate and a 9.0% walk rate. Earlier this month, Baseball America’s Scott Gregor reported that while Pilkington’s curve and slider remained works in progress, his changeup “has become quite a weapon.” BA ranked him 24th on Chicago’s midseason list.

Given Cleveland’s success in turning unheralded pitching prospects into big league studs, it’s possible that his new team unlocks Pilkington’s potential and the deal comes back to haunt the White Sox. But with a commanding division lead and a significant hole to fill, Chicago is in win-now mode, and they’ve made a solid addition to their lineup.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Left of Centerfield
1 year ago

Wasn’t in favor of Cleveland signing Hernandez but if they turned him into a so-so pitching prospect plus bought time for their 435 middle infield prospects to further develop…I’d call that a win.