Improvements against the slider have helped him tremendously.
If you strike out a lot at the major league level, it’s most likely you’re going need a good deal of power to make it successfully as a major league hitter. Vice versa, if you don’t hit for a lot of power, you’ll probably need good contact skills. Flash back to the 2016 season. Enrique Hernandez was hanging onto a roster spot with the Dodgers despite a very lackluster 67 wRC+. This was because he was a utility player that was able to play several positions very serviceably.
Back then, it looked like major league pitchers had figured Hernandez out. He couldn’t touch anything offspeed, so they started throwing him fewer fastballs. They bombarded him with pitches outside the zone, and subsequently he had trouble making any consistent amount of contact. Same goes for the quality of his contact, as all his underlying batted ball metrics had slipped, causing a BABIP and power collapse. He ranked in the bottom 10 percent of offensive productivity among all major league hitters, putting up similar numbers to names like Ivan De Jesus, Gregor Blanco, and Alcides Escobar. He couldn’t keep going at this pace.
The 2017 season saw some improvements though. His production against offspeed improved and he was making contact outside the zone often. Overall, he was still struggling though. His K-rate had seen a significant improvement (26.2 percent to 23.4 percent), but his xwOBA only marginally improved (.296 to .306). His massive increase in wRC+ (67 to 92) was probably the cause of fortune more than anything (SLG was .420, xSLG was .384). Nonetheless, he had became a very cromulent hitter for a utility player, which had its value for the Dodgers.
Last season, it all changed for Hernandez. Singling out the first half, he had improved his K-rate all the way down to 20.5 percent. His power had peaked, as his ISO had jumped all the way up to .243. He was now a comfortably above average major league hitter. In the second half, he was even better. His K-rate was all the way down to 11.6 percent, somehow almost even with his walk rate. He progressively got better throughout the season, with his wRC+ for the seconding half sitting at 127. In the months of August and September he hit for a whopping 165 wRC+. Only 10 hitters with as many plate appearances in that time were better: Christian Yelich, Mookie Betts, Tommy Pham, Justin Turner, Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Max Muncy, J.D. Martinez, Brandon Nimmo, and Ronald Acuña.
Breaking it down further, Hernandez’s contact reached a major peak in the second half of last year. Inside or outside the zone— it didn’t matter. In a matter of a couple seasons, he had totally flipped the script on his profile as a hitter.
With his previous out-of-zone struggles, it should be no surprise that at one time Hernandez could not hit a slider. In 2016, minimum 40 results, his xwOBA against sliders (.153) ranked 283rd out of 285 hitters. He whiffed 44.2 percent of the time on that offering. In 2017, he ranked 261st out of 315 hitters on slider xwOBA (.213), whiffing 37.8 percent of the time. For the first half of 2018, he ranked 213th out of 341 qualifiers. Though improved, he was still struggling.
The transformation in the second half against sliders for Hernandez was unbelievable. He ranked 43rd out of 292 in production against the pitch (.328 xwOBA). The improvement was clear based off the zone profile, as it looked like he started laying off the down and away sliders a lot more.
This visual represents Hernandez from the beginning of 2016 to the end of the first half of 2018. His swing percentage on sliders down and away stood at 21.2 percent, way above the league average of 10.5 percent.
For the second half of last season, he only swung at 9.6 percent of them.
The improvements at the plate look like they’ve transitioned nicely into 2019 for Hernandez so far. Through 47 Spring Training plate appearances, he’s slashing .341/.404/.634. Even more impressively, he’s only struck out in 6.4 percent of his plate appearances. Further progression on this would be absolutely spectacular.
If Hernandez can continue to be an imposing threat at the plate, his value to the Dodgers will be off the charts. He could either cement his role as a full time second baseman with a very above average bat, or he could continue to be a legit tool for Dave Roberts with the added value of being able to move all around the field.
All things considered, Enrique Hernandez’s monumental transformation as a hitter has been nothing short of stunning. If he can keep it up, it could prove to be huge for the Dodgers.