In many ways, the Red Sox offseason took shape around Kiké Hernández.
Once the Sox re-signed the versatile 31-year-old last September, Hernández’s ability to play center field, shortstop, and second base guided the other up-the-middle players the team pursued first when Xander Bogaerts left as a free agent, then when Trevor Story required elbow surgery.
Hernández opened the year at short, moved to center when Adam Duvall was injured, moved to second when Jarren Duran and Yu Chang entered the lineup, then moved back to short when Chang broke his hamate bone. Hernández’s versatility has been prized as the Red Sox have tried to adapt to the shifting contours of their roster.
Still, the reality is that Hernández represents the team’s best available option at short rather than its ideal one. The fact that Chang was at short and Hernández at second in April suggests as much, as does the fact that manager Alex Cora on Tuesday reiterated that Story will return to the Sox as their shortstop.
Even so, Hernández prides himself on defensive excellence, and the Sox trusted him to stabilize their infield defense. In the aggregate, that hasn’t happened. Hernández entered Wednesday’s game against the Reds with 11 errors, most in the big leagues.
According to Statcast, his defense has cost the Sox five outs and four runs relative to an average shortstop, both third worst among qualifying shortstops. Cora noted that 10 of the errors — including two on Tuesday — have been on throws, suggesting that Hernández has shown a shortstop’s range and athleticism but hasn’t been finishing plays.
“Are you making errors because you’ve been sloppy or are you making errors because you’re getting to balls that other shortstops don’t make or are you just throwing the ball away?” Cora asked rhetorically. “I think he’s just from the throwing the ball away. That’s what it is.
“Everything has been throwing. That’s something that we cannot hide,” Cora continued, noting that despite his errors, Hernández has made enough plays that Baseball Info Solutions pegs him at “only” two runs below average. “The range and the other stuff is part of [evaluating him at shortstop], he’s been solid … We’ve just got to keep working [on better throws], obviously. There’s a few things that we have identified that we have to get better. But overall, obviously the errors are part of [the defensive performance]. We don’t like that.”
Tuesday’s multi-error game obscured what Hernández and the Red Sox had seen as more consistent defensive play at the position through most of May. He had committed just one error in four weeks entering Tuesday, before he airmailed one throw to first and fired one too hard to second in an attempt to initiate a double play.
“I’ve been settling in well, a lot better, playing under control. Yesterday, I made one bad throw and one throw a little too hard to second. It’s one game,” said Hernández. “I can’t let one game stress me out and take away what I’ve been doing the last four weeks or so. Just go out there today like yesterday didn’t happen and we’re all good.”
The Sox have no immediate plans to turn in another direction at shortstop, though change is approaching even if not near at hand. Chang could be back as soon as this coming month and Story could follow him back by July. Until either returns — at which point, Hernández could slide to second or center, or triangulate between all three up-the-middle positions — Hernández is the team’s best option at short.
Of course, Hernández’s defensive struggles would seem less impactful if he was performing offensively as he and the team had hoped. Instead, Hernández — after going 0 for 3 with a strikeout and being replaced by a pinch hitter in the eighth inning Wednesday — is now hitting .233/.308/.352.
He’d sharpened his plate discipline in recent days, walking seven times to post a .393 OBP despite a .191 average in his prior eight games. Hernández is hopeful that the improved discipline is the start of the same sort of turnaround he experienced in 2021, when he carried a .225/.287/.383 line through roughly half the season, before posting a .271/.374/.502 line from atop the order over the final three-plus months of the season.
From that precedent, Hernández sees hope for his 2023 campaign.
“I haven’t really felt great all year. I’m starting to get there,” he said. “There’s a lot of time to get your numbers to where you want them to be.
“Hopefully it turns around and I can have the season I had in ‘21. To date, my numbers are probably around the same as they were in ‘21. So I’m not really stressing about it. “Obviously, I want to do my best because it’s a big season for me, and I know that if I’m playing at my best, I can be a game-changer for this team. I want to be one of the team’s X-factors. It’s disappointing not to perform the way that you you’re capable of, but I’m just trying to stay the course.”