There’s a genre of baseball discussion known as the “fun fact.” You might also call it “trivia.” A player is the first to accomplish a particular feat in 40 years; another is the only one to reach a notable career mark in a particular season. The genre doesn’t demand rigorous analysis; it’s merely a collection of interesting tidbits which may or may not be relevant in more thorough discussions. Some fun facts are amazing and others are forced to the point of farce.
There’s another genre of baseball discussion we’ll call “can he keep doing this thing?” analysis. This is very familiar to the loyal FanGraphs reader. We do this kind of thing all the time. We notice a player trying something new and try to determine if it’s meaningful. This article will subject Cesar Hernandez’s 2016 season to both sorts of discussion.
If you’re current on your Cesar Hernandez news, you’re aware that he had something of a breakout in 2016. Over his first two partial years — 2013 and 2014 — there was nothing in his performance that would have led you to expect great things. It was only 256 plate appearances, but he was a well below-average hitter and graded out below average on the bases and in the field. He accumulated -0.8 WAR. No one should be buried for a fraction of a full season of work across one’s age-23 and -24 seasons, but he didn’t do much to catch eyes. His minor-league numbers were a mixed bag.
In 2015, he got more reps and played better. His ISO went up around 30 points to .077. His baserunning and defense ticked over onto the positive side of the ledger. The sum total of his work was 1.4 WAR in 452 PA. Again, not enough statistical information to form any sort of final opinion about his true talent, but a sign of modest growth to someone without inside knowledge of his development.
The most recent season, however, is the one that catches the eye. His ISO rose again, he started walking more; most notably, his UZR went gangbusters. When that happens, your value skyrockets, as his did, to 4.4 WAR in 622 PA. While the UZR spike probably gives you pause about the entire enterprise, we can swap out his UZR for DRS or FRAA and he still had something close to a three-win season (3.3 rWAR and 3.4 WARP).
The normal routine here would be to probe his numbers at a granular level to try to figure out if the walks and modest power increase were legitimate. Hernandez is young and these kinds of improvements would be totally consistent with growth and coaching. He did swing a little less often and made more contact when he did. Of course, we can’t really know if Hernandez truly got better, or if he just happened to play better for a given stretch of time. We can probably regress our defensive expectations a bit, but we don’t even have 1500 MLB plate appearances. He has shown proof of concept, but it’s probably not time to float a massive contract extension or anything.
If you had to summarize his profile, you might say he’s a speed-and-BABIP guy who may have started to develop some patience this year. That’s a nice combination if everything works well, as you can usually get on base and then wreak havoc. If he’s going to consistently run a .370 OBP, he’ll have no trouble contributing even with well below-average power.
Now for the fun fact! Cesar Hernandez led the league with three ground-ball triples in 2016. This is a pretty unusual feat. Four other players had two — including, implausibly, Joe Mauer. No one else had more than one. As a fun fact, this may or may not be impressive depending on how closely we want to look.
Ground-ball triples are rare events and you can imagine why. They would seem to require a great bounce off the wall, terrible official scoring, or a whole lot of speed. Anyone can get one of them as long as he’s reasonably fleet of foot. But recording three in one year almost necessarily speaks to one’s speed and/or hustle. The other side of this is that you have to hit a lot of ground balls. Ground balls aren’t great because even when they get by an infielder they are typically singles.
If you can mix grounders and speed, you can make things happen, which is part of the reason Hernandez has a .352 career BABIP.
Let’s take a look at our three ground-ball triples.
In addition to what appears to be an uncanny ability to pull the ball directly into the corner, what the videos here provide are good evidence that Hernandez can run. We often talk about speed in the context of stolen bases; we talk about it less with regard to its effect on takings extra bases — probably because there’s a small subset of balls in play where it matters. On top of that, it’s harder to measure these hits without watching them all individually. We generally don’t have a box on the scorecard for “probably a double for most guys but he reached third.”
In other words, we think of speed a lot in relation to steals and defense, but we think less about it in terms of hitting because it’s harder to revisit in retrospect. I’m not saying we ignore it or anything, just that it’s worth thinking about a little more when evaluating players of Hernandez’s ilk. Anyone who can hit the ball on the ground and make it to third is worth monitoring.
The actual reality of this fun fact is a little underwhelming. Four players had two and three isn’t any sort of record. It’s interesting, but the fact doesn’t stand on its own. However, the fun fact is consistent with a broader message about Hernandez: if he’s talented enough to walk this much and make an average amount of contact, his speed and its impact on different parts of his game will likely make him a quality MLB player for the next couple of years. The Phillies are in a transition phase and Hernandez can be part of the bridge to their renaissance. It’s not a terribly fun fact, but it does offer a window into the player Hernandez could be.
Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.