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How Enrique Hernández Went From Utility Infielder To The Hottest Hitter In The Playoffs

Not long ago, Boston Red Sox center fielder Enrique (Kiké) Hernández was a defensive nomad. After being acquired by the Los Angeles Dodgers in a six-player deal in December 2014, he spent six seasons in Dodger blue, and he played at no fewer than six different positions in any one of those years. Hernández garnered the coveted title of “super utility infielder” thanks to his defensive versatility and a hit tool that allowed him to stay in the starting lineup night after night.

After the 2020 season ended, so did Hernández’s time in L.A., and he signed a two-year, $14 million deal with the Red Sox. His signing was announced just a day after one of Boston’s all-time greats, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, retired from baseball; given that Hernández had played most at second base to that point, it looked like he was the heir apparent to Pedroia.

Once the season started, however, Hernández found himself a new home in center field. But he wasn’t just good at the position; he was elite. Despite playing only 93 games in center, Hernández was third in baseball at the position over the season by Defensive Runs Saved and fourth in Ultimate Zone Rating, two of the most well known and widely used advanced defensive metrics available. For Hernández, the reactions that made him a great infielder translated to center, as he was the best outfielder in baseball in the Outfield Jump metric.

Per Statcast, Outfield Jump has three components. First, the reaction, or distance (in feet) covered in the first 1.5 seconds. Second, the burst, or distance covered in the next 1.5 seconds. Finally, the route, which measures the distance covered in the three seconds against the direct route to the ball. When it came specifically to the first component, Hernández dusted the competition, covering 4.3 more feet in the first 1.5 seconds above average, and 2 feet more than the next best outfielder.

It’s that type of skill that affords Hernández the ability to make catches like this with regularity:

As Hernández blossomed into an everyday center fielder, he was also an above-average performer at the plate, finishing the season with a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) mark of 110. Overall, Hernández put together his best season as a major leaguer, accumulating 4.0 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs, which was third-highest among Red Sox position players behind MVP-caliber players in Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. This marked a drastic improvement over the previous two years, when Hernández’s output at the plate was underwater.

Kiké had been falling short at the plate

Basic MLB statistics over the past three regular seasons for Enrique Hernández

Season G AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2019 130 .237 .304 .411 .301 86
2020 48 .230 .270 .410 .290 82
2021 134 .250 .337 .449 .338 110

Source: FanGraphs

Hernández’s offensive improvement has been three-pronged. The last time he was an above-average hitter was in 2018, when he hit to a 118 wRC+ mark. That was also the last year he had a walk rate above 10 percent and a strikeout rate below 20 percent. In the two years that followed, those metrics trended in the wrong direction. His 4.1 percent walk rate in 2020 was especially underwhelming, in the bottom 5 percent of the league. 

In 2021, these rates fully bounced back to his 2018 levels. Thanks to his more selective approach, he made more high-quality contact, setting career bests in average exit velocity, barrel rate and expected weighted on-base average. Hernández performed especially well on batted balls hit to his pull side, netting a .460 xWOBA — over 100 points higher than his .358 mark from a year ago.

Kiké’s underlying stats have jumped

Advanced MLB statistics over the past three regular seasons for Enrique Hernández

Season K rate BB rate Exit Velocity HardHit Barrel xwOBA
2019 21.1% 7.8% 88.3 34.5% 5.6% .303
2020 20.9 4.1 88.5 43.1 7.3 .290
2021 18.8 10.4 90.8 43.2 8.4 .345

Source: Baseball Savant

The final piece to his offensive turnaround was how he handled four-seam fastballs, particularly those in the upper part of the zone. On the whole, Hernández went from a 90.5 mph average exit velocity and .363 xwOBA on four-seamers in 2019 to 90.6 and .335, respectively, in 2020, but he improved to much better marks of 93.8 and .376 in 2021. Pitchers had exploited Hernández’s weakness on high four-seamers, but he saw much better results this season.

Kiké is hitting high fastballs much better

Statistics for Enrique Hernández on high four-seam fastballs, 2019-21

Season Pitch share Exit velocity SLG ISO xwOBA Run Value
2019 15.5% 89.0 .333 .133 .299 -3.4
2020 18.2 82.6 .269 .115 .186 -1.8
2021 19.1 92.6 .404 .191 .328 +2.2

Source: Baseball Savant

These days, Hernández is the hottest hitter on the planet — and he’s doing it on baseball’s biggest stage. In the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, Hernández had a historic run at the plate, going 9-for-20 with two home runs and six runs batted in. And he’s the one who delivered his team to the next round by way of a walk-off sacrifice fly that scored the winning run in Game 4 of the series. His bat hasn’t slowed down in the ALCS, with homers in each of the first two games against a Houston Astros pitching staff that had the fourth-best ERA in the American League.

Wherever he has played, Hernández has been a fan favorite and a highly regarded teammate thanks to his high-energy style of play and big personality. This year, thanks to his elite defensive play in center field and improved offense, he has cemented himself in the upper tier of players in baseball. If he continues his legendary postseason run, he just might become a household name.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

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