In many respects, Kiké Hernández resides in the middle of Red Sox hopes of improvement.
Of the dozens of players acquired by the team since the end of the 2019 season, Hernández — who signed a two-year, $14 million deal this winter — is the only one to receive a multiyear contract. Manager Alex Cora has installed him regularly in the leadoff spot through the first half of spring training and speaks glowingly of the role he can play solidifying the team’s defense, whether as a second baseman or an outfielder capable of handling any of the three spots.
A great deal is going to be put on Hernández’s shoulders. Yet that enthusiasm comes with a pair of obvious questions: Why, given his skills, was he relegated to part-time (and often platoon) status with the Dodgers? And is there upside beyond the job he held in Los Angeles as a valued contributor with a limited profile?
Over seven big league seasons spanning a little more than 2,000 plate appearances, Hernández has a solid if unspectacular line — .240 average, .313 OBP, and .425 slugging, with particularly strong numbers against lefties (.263/.345/.474). He’s never had as many as 500 plate appearances in a season, and he’s been prone to streaky performances.
Yet he does feature a combination of strength, athleticism, and baseball intelligence to allow evaluators to imagine greater contributions.
“Pound for pound, he might have the most pop on the team. He’s got incredible power,” said Tigers bench coach George Lombard, who worked with Hernández as the Dodgers’ first base coach. “If [Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers] just helps him unlock a couple consistency issues he has with his swing, this guy has the potential to stay in there every day and be an impact player.”
Certainly, Cora thinks Hernández has the potential to do that. The manager has spoken often about his eagerness to “challenge” the 29-year-old — both to be a leader even as he acclimates to a new club and to be the leadoff hitter. This spring, Hernández has tried to demonstrate his readiness for that job, going 6 for 13 with a homer, three doubles, five walks, and two strikeouts in 18 plate appearances.
“I want to hit leadoff,” Hernández said on Thursday after going 1 for 3 and, for the first time this spring, playing center field against the Twins. “I feel like when I hit in the first inning I’m a little more involved in the game, and it also gives me a chance to see the starting pitcher maybe one more time, maybe a third time. I’m just trying to put good ABs together, either try to barrel some balls up or get on base however way I can. I know the guys hitting behind me are really, really good, so my job as a leadoff hitter is to try to get on base and score some runs. Hopefully I can do that and hopefully score 100 runs this year.”
In order to emerge as a viable option for that spot, Hernández must make his case to stay in the lineup against righthanded pitching. The Sox believe that he did that — albeit in limited opportunities — with the Dodgers.
While Los Angeles put him in the lineup in just 44 percent of starts against righties over the last three years, Hernández actually has similar numbers over those seasons against righties (.235/.304/.438) and lefties (.256/.327/.433). Add the fact that his tendency to pull fly balls could turn a number of outs into extra-base hits and homers at Fenway, and the Sox imagine a player who can hold his own against righties and lefties.
Still, the team hopes to see Hernández tighten his offensive approach. Like all hitters, he sees pronounced disparities in his performance when he swings at pitches in the strike zone (.287 average, .522 slugging since 2018) compared with when he chases offerings outside of it (.117, .181).
That fact makes it more problematic that Hernández has failed to force pitchers to work in the strike zone when ahead in counts. Typically, batters produce huge offensive numbers when ahead in the count. Over the last three seasons, big leaguers have averaged OPS’s of .986 (2020), 1.017 (2019), and .977 (2018) when ahead in the count.
During that time, however, Hernández has posted just an .823 OPS in those situations — sixth worst in the majors among 195 players with at least 300 plate appearances with a count advantage. He’s chased 29.6 percent of pitches out of the strike zone when ahead in the count — nearly identical to his 29.9 percent chase rate when behind in the count. Instead of becoming more selective, he keeps hacking to his detriment.
“One thing we noticed from our information, whenever he was ahead in the count, he was expanding the zone,” said Cora. “He’s not doing that now. It’s still spring training, but you can see, we’re facing better pitching the last week. If he can control that, he’ll be a much better hitter.”
“So far I’ve got five walks. Before it takes me like 100 at-bats to get five walks so I’m doing a pretty good job,” Hernández smirked. “I’ve been working on it, trying to stay in the strike zone, because I know if I go there and start hacking and not seeing too many pitches, getting out of the strike zone, that’s not going to help my cause to be the leadoff hitter on this team.”
Again, it’s spring — when statistics and results often represent optical illusions as pitchers simply work to prepare rather than executing game plans. But for Hernández, those five walks represent a start, a glimpse of how he and the team hope to defy track records and expectations to become better.