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Is César Hernández actually a perfect fit for the Washington Nationals?

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While one team in the NL East made a handful of high impact signings over the past few days, the Nationals went for a player who was a little more under the radar.

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox
Cesar Hernandez may not have been the ambitious signing Nats fans were hoping for, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad signing.
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Admit it. On a day when the Washington Nationals watched franchise legend Max Scherzer sign with the division rival New York Mets, you were hoping for the Nats to do something to soften the blow. Maybe they would go all in and sign Kris Bryant or Carlos Correa. Maybe they would step in and poach former Mets’ starting pitcher Marcus Stroman to help anchor the rotation. Maybe they would make every Nats fan’s dream come true and just give Juan Soto a blank check... with no deferred money. Unfortunately, if you were hoping for something splashy, you got stuck with the sad trombone. They did, however, bring in a nice under the radar target.

César Hernández is coming off of a disappointing 2021 campaign that saw him bat just .232/.308/.386 with 21 homers between Cleveland and Chicago. It was an odd season all around for the 31-year-old Hernández. In six previous seasons as a full time starter, Hernández had never hit more than 15 homers. He’d also batted below .270 just once (.253 in 2018). Hernández smashed his previous career high in homers while batting 21 points worse than he’d ever hit in a season.

Given that much of Hernández’s offensive value over the years has been tied in to his on-base skills, last year’s decline in batting average may be something to worry about. Most of it can be explained by looking at his career low .266 BABIP (He’d never finished with a BABIP below .313 before that!). The two main underlying factors that stick out would be things that go along with the power surge that he had.

  • His fly ball percentage was a career high 35.1% (career 27.5%). Fly balls are obviously more likely to leave the yard, but they’re also more likely to be converted into outs than ground balls or line drives.
  • One of Hernández’s strengths throughout his career is that he’s used the whole field. Last season, he hit the ball to the opposite field just 23.1% of the time. His career average is 27.9% and his previous career low was 26.5%. While pulling the ball more often will probably lead to more home runs, it also leads to less ground balls with eyes... particularly in today’s shift-heavy MLB.

If Hernández employs a similar approach at the plate going forward, it’s hard to see the BABIP bouncing back too much towards his previous .328 career mark. While we so often use home runs as the measuring stick, it’s a bit odd to see that in Hernández’s three best wRC+ seasons, he combined to hit just 18 home runs.

What may actually be even stranger about Hernández’s production last season is that his power pretty much dropped off a cliff in the second half after he was traded to the contending White Sox. Despite playing 35.5% of his games in Chicago, he hit just 3 of his 21 homers over those final 53 games while mustering just a .067 ISO. Given that he actually went to a better hitter’s park and didn’t even switch divisions, it’s kind of hard to explain that prolonged power slump. His average (.231 in Cleveland, .232 in Chicago) and OBP (.307 vs. .309) were nearly identical. It was only the extra base hits that seemed to disappear. Despite the second half power struggles, Hernández’s 2021 ISO (.154) was a career high by 25 points.

Rather than focusing solely on last season, however, let’s focus on the player that Hernández has been over the course of his career. Offensively, Hernández is a lifetime .270/.345/.384 hitter with a little pop. He’s always walked at an above average level (9.8% career... 9.2% or higher in five of the past six years), so he’ll find his way on base even when he’s slumping a bit. He’s basically a league average hitter. His career wRC+ is 98 (100 is league average). Over the past seven years, his season-long wRC+ has never finished below 90 (last year, unfortunately) or above 112.

Early in his career with the Phillies, Hernández ran a bit. In fact, he had 15 or more stolen bases in each of his first four full seasons as a starter. Unfortunately, that part of his game seems to have gone away as he’s aged. He’s stolen just 10 bases combined over the past three seasons. As the stolen base production has dropped, the power production has gradually increased. Hernández’s ISO was .099 or lower in every season from 2013-2016. From 2017-2021, his ISO has been .124 or higher in four out of five seasons.

There’s definitely value in being a league average hitter alone. At the two positions Hernández would be likely to see time at, the Nationals incumbent starters posted wRC+ of 79 (Luis García) and 68 (Carter Kieboom). Neither García nor Kieboom have really established themselves as clear starters at their respective positions. The Nationals’ other infielder that isn’t limited to first base is 35-year-old shortstop Alcides Escobar. Escobar had a tremendous second half in 2021, but he hadn’t played in the majors since 2018.

One of the primary things that seemed to be brought up on social media when the Nats signed Hernández was his versatility. There’s no doubt that Hernández could see some time at third base this season. Given that he’s handled shortstop a few times in his career, it’s even conceivable that he could be an emergency option there as well. It’s worth noting, however, that 864 of the 920 games that he’s started in his big league career have been at second base. He hasn’t started a game at any other position since 2016 (SS, 2 games).

That being said, Hernández has been a very good defender at second base over the years. He won the 2020 AL Gold Glove at second base while he was in Cleveland. Over the past six years, he’s been good for 29.4 DEF according to Fangraphs, finishing with a positive value in all but one season (2018, -0.9). Defensive Runs Saved (-16 career) doesn’t seem to love Hernández as much as Fangraphs’ Fielding Runs + Positional Adjustment. Still, he’s shown slightly above average range (+2.0 UZR/150) while maintaining a .980 Fielding Percentage at second base throughout his career.

There’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract

OK. Maybe Trevor Rosenthal disproved that theory a few years ago, but it still holds true more often than not. In this case, both the term (one year) and the finances ($4 million) are optimal for a team like the Nats. They’re not tying themselves into a long-term deal that’s going to hamstring them in more important contract negotiations down the road (ahem, Juan Soto). While this move figures to push Luis García over to shortstop, it doesn’t really block anyone for the 2022 season, which is all that the contract will cover.

Oddly enough, despite hitting a career high 21 homers and being just one year removed from winning that 2020 Gold Glove, Hernández signed for $1 million less than his deal with Cleveland last season. That $4 million is expensive enough to suggest that Hernández will start about five games a week when healthy, but it’s not so egregious that the Nats can’t move on from him if Escobar builds on last year’s rebound and García and Kieboom both break out.

Just as importantly for a rebuilding team, Hernández is a prime candidate to be a player who is signed on the cheap and flipped at the deadline for future assets. We saw the Nats do this with several players last year. Brad Hand, Jon Lester, and Kyle Schwarber were all players the Nats signed to one-year deals last season who were traded for quality prospects with years of club control at the deadline. Sometimes those prospects don’t pan out. Other times you end up getting Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps.

Signing Cesar Hernández may not have been the flashy signing that many of us were hoping for. He’s still a great signing that gives the Nats a little flexibility and a lot more stability than they had at any position on the infield other than first base. Now, about that rapidly thinning pitching market.....