No Stranger to October Heroics, Kiké Hernández is Now Central to the Red Sox

Joc Pederson isn’t the only ex-Dodger thriving in October (excuse me, Joctober). Kiké Hernández is going to have to find a catchy nickname for the month as well (Kiktober? ‘Riqtober? I’m still workshopping that one), as he keeps adding to his considerable portfolio of postseason heroics after turning in the best season of his career with the Red Sox.

On Monday night, Hernández hit the walk-off sacrifice fly that sent the 92-win Red Sox past the 100-win Rays in the Division Series. Earlier in the series, he had a 5-for-6 performance with three doubles, a game-tying homer, and three RBI in Boston’s 14–6 comeback victory in Game 2, followed by a 3-for-6 performance with a solo homer and a game-tying RBI single in Game 3. Within those two games, he set a Division Series record with hits in seven straight at-bats (not plate appearances), one short of a postseason record shared by Reggie Jackson (1977–78 Yankees), Billy Hatcher (1990 Reds), and Miguel Cairo (2001–02 Cardinals).

Hernández also went 1-for-3 with a run scored and a walk in the Wild Card Game against the Yankees, highlighted by an assist on the pivotal play where Aaron Judge was thrown out at the plate. It all makes for quite a highlight reel.

Hernández is no stranger to the postseason, having made annual trips from 2015 to ’20 with the Dodgers. His list of greatest hits starts with his three-homer, seven-RBI performance against the Cubs at Wrigley Field in Game 5 of the 2017 NLCS, which did nothing less than help the Dodgers clinch their first pennant in 29 years; he added a game-tying RBI single off Ken Giles in the 10th inning of Game 2 of that year’s World Series against the Astros, though Los Angeles lost that contest. He also contributed a two-run, pinch-hit double in Game 3 of the 2019 Division Series against the Nationals and a pair of game-tying solo homers in last year’s NLCS against the Braves, one against Max Fried in Game 1 (the Dodgers’ only run) and the other in Game 7, followed an inning later by Cody Bellinger’s decisive solo shot.

Overall, Hernández has hit .248/.341/.497 with 10 homers and a 122 wRC+ in 167 PA in the postseason, well ahead of his regular-season career numbers (.242/.318/.430, 101 wRC+). Of the 35 players with at least 10 postseason homers in the Wild Card era, only perpetual rookie Randy Arozarena has a lower career WAR than Hernández’s 12.1 (though by bWAR, Kiké has the edge on his former teammate Joc, 15.8 to 10.3). While none of this is exactly predictive of future October success, it’s abundantly clear that he’s unfazed by the biggest of moments, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s raised his game since moving to the Red Sox.

Though Hernández played in an average of 131 games annually from 2016 to ’19 for the Dodgers (plus 48 out of 60 last year), his versatility and his struggles against right-handed pitching limited him to role player status, which isn’t to say that he wasn’t valued. The Dodgers love their platoons, their super-utilitymen, and their deep rosters; combined with Hernández’s sense of humor and outgoing persona, it’s fair to say that he was beloved by teammates and fans (note that on MLB’s list of top jersey sales released in March, he cracked the top 10, one spot ahead of Mike Trout). But with former top prospect Gavin Lux still waiting in the wings, Chris Taylor coming off a strong season and under club control for one more year, and Hernández posting an 85 wRC+ in ’19–20, Los Angeles let him depart via free agency nonetheless.

The Red Sox, who lost center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. to free agency and received major league worsts in both wRC+ (55) and WAR (-0.8) from their second basemen in 2020, came calling, signing Hernández to a two-year, $14 million deal in late January — their biggest offseason expenditure and only multi-year deal handed out following a 24–36 season and fifth-place finish.

Though he was in the Opening Day lineup at the keystone while Alex Verdugo started in center field, Hernández wound up making more starts at the latter position (81) than the former (45), throwing in an additional four at shortstop. Even while taking two trips to the injured list, one for a right hamstring strain in early May and the other for a COVID-19 breakthrough infection in late August (part of an outbreak that sidelined 12 players and one coach), he still set a career high with 585 plate appearances, 123 more than in any previous season. What’s more, he hit .250/.337/.449 with 20 homers, a 110 wRC+, and 4.0 WAR, the last of which ranked third on the team behind Xander Bogaerts (5.2) and Rafael Devers (4.7).

A good chunk of that value was defense. Hernández previously rated as a slightly above-average center fielder by the major metrics, but thanks in part to a career-high eight assists — including five gunning down a runner trying to score and two more at third base — he turned in impressive numbers across the board: 7.4 UZR, 14 DRS, and 8 OAA. Not only did he place in the 85th percentile among outfielders in OAA, but he also got the best jumps of any outfielder. His 4.5 feet versus average in the reaction portion of his jump was nearly double that of second-ranked Trent Grisham, his 2.2 feet in the burst portion of his jump placed in the top 10, and his overall 4.3 feet versus average was 1.1 feet better than second-ranked Kevin Kiermaier. Jackie who?

On the offensive side, the change of scenery helped. Hernández moved from Dodger Stadium, which has a park factor of 97, to Fenway Park, which has a park factor of 105, and his batting line at home improved from .260/.295/.457 (97 wRC+) in 288 PA in 2019–20 to .270/.362/.483 (121 wRC+) in 309 PA. His road numbers improved as well, from a dreadful 74 wRC+ in 320 PA while spending lots of time in the mostly pitcher-friendly NL West in ’19–20 to 97 wRC+ in 276 PA while sightseeing in the mostly hitter-friendly AL East.

Hernández’s approach at the plate improved as well, or rather it returned to form; after chasing too many pitches and walking very little in 2019–20, he pushed his walk rate back above 10% and cut his strikeout rate as well:

Kiké Hernández Plate Discipline
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% SwStr% BB% K%
2017 27.0% 70.7% 46.7% 11.3% 12.0% 23.4%
2018 24.7% 68.4% 43.2% 8.6% 10.8% 16.9%
2019 31.7% 70.5% 47.2% 11.2% 7.8% 21.1%
2020 32.7% 70.8% 49.8% 10.4% 4.1% 20.9%
2021 27.6% 68.9% 44.6% 9.9% 10.4% 18.8%

The increased selectivity paid off: Hernández hit the ball harder than ever, setting career highs in average exit velocity, barrel rate, expected slugging percentage, and xwOBA thanks in part to a career-low ground-ball rate:

Kiké Hernández Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB GB% EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2015 1.52 46.2% 90.4 4.4% 43.4% .307 .256 .490 .422 .359 .312
2016 0.97 40.8% 88.5 5.9% 35.5% .190 .208 .324 .361 .270 .285
2017 1.05 41.6% 88.5 6.8% 36.7% .215 .211 .421 .371 .310 .296
2018 0.85 37.5% 89.0 6.6% 36.0% .256 .241 .470 .411 .342 .320
2019 0.83 36.1% 88.3 5.6% 34.3% .237 .236 .411 .395 .301 .302
2020 1.02 40.4% 88.5 7.3% 43.1% .230 .224 .410 .383 .290 .289
2021 0.71 32.6% 90.8 8.4% 43.2% .250 .250 .449 .445 .338 .344

Hernández also pulled the ball with greater frequency than before (47.2%, four points ahead of his previous career mark). Righty + pull + air + Fenway = a lot of shots at the Green Monster, and for Hernández, that accounted for eight of his 20 homers, 11 of his 35 doubles, and one of his three triples, all in just 46 PA; he hit .682 and slugged 1.523 on pulled flies and line drives at home. Another way to look at it is that he produced 67 total bases via that route, 10 more than all of his total bases last year, and up from 55 on pulled flies and liners on 45 such balls in 2019–20. His success with that approach wasn’t limited to Fenway Park, either; he hit 51 such balls into this bucket away, accounting for all 10 of his road homers, 26 extra-base hits, and a 1.196 SLG.

As noted above, throughout his career Hernández has been limited in his playing time due to his lack of production against righties; for his career, he owns just an 86 wRC+ against them (.227/.295/.395), compared to a 121 wRC+ against lefties (.262/.348/.478), the latter of which account for 43.4% of his plate appearances. This year, he did his typical lefty-mashing for a 126 wRC+ (.260/.361/.490), albeit in just 39.8% of his plate appearances, but fortunately for his cause, he managed a 99 wRC+ against righties (.244/.321/.423). Again, Fenway Park was a big part of that; on the road, his split was 128 versus lefties but just 74 versus righties, with the latter share accounting for 27% of his total PA.

That’s barely playable even with great defense in center, unless your alternatives aren’t great, and with the Sox, Verdugo was very Not Great (-2.8 UZR, -6 DRS, -6 OAA) in 337 innings in the middle pasture. During the regular season’s final series against the Nationals in Washington, with one lefty and two righties starting, the Red Sox used Hunter Renfroe in center, a position where he had just four previous major league starts, and Hernández at second base, where he had average numbers this year but generally better ones for his career. It was an interesting experiment, particularly with Boston throwing a trio of ground-ball-oriented pitchers in that series, but I don’t expect we’ll see that alignment in October.

Given that the Astros have just one lefty in their postseason rotation — presumptive Game 1 starter Framber Valdez — Hernández will potentially face righty starters on the road in three of seven games in the upcoming ALCS. Still, the Rays threw all righties at Hernández at Tropicana Field with night-and-day results: an 0-for-4 in Game 1 and then the aforementioned 5-for-6 in Game 2. So even while playing the percentages, it wouldn’t exactly be out of character for Hernández to go off. This is his month, and the rest of us are just living in it.





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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dukewinslow
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dukewinslow

Another charter member of the “announcer attention check name club” along with Kaka.