Indians Preview: César Hernández, Cleveland’s Offensive Table-Setter

Casey Drottar

Pitch after pitch after pitch after pitch.

César Hernández stepped to the plate as the Cleveland Indians’ leadoff hitter in Monday’s scrimmage against Pittsburgh, and took forever to finally leave it.

One can imagine how annoyed Pirates pitcher Trevor Williams must’ve been watching Cleveland’s new second baseman spoil so many low 90’s offerings. Finally, on the twelfth pitch of the at-bat, Hernández singled into center.

It was exactly the kind of plate appearance the Indians want from him this year. The kind of at-bat they had in mind when penciling his name at the top of the order.

As he prepares for his 60-game cameo with Cleveland, Hernández’s role on offense is simple -- set the table for the team’s most imposing hitters.

The Indians were obviously hoping Hernández would spend more than just a few months in Cleveland.

Though they signed him to a one-year deal last winter, bringing him in to replace longtime second baseman Jason Kipnis, they at the very least thought they’d have him for a full 162-game summer.

Things, as we know, have drastically changed since then. Instead of having a lengthy campaign to audition for offseason free agency, Hernández now has to make the most of a 60-game sprint in what’s likely to be his first and only season with the Indians.

That’s not to diminish the impact Hernández can make during this abbreviated campaign. He’s already displaying on-field chemistry with star shortstop Francisco Lindor.

As mentioned, he’s also replacing Lindor atop Cleveland’s lineup, ideally to give him another runner to knock home.

Based on his career numbers, that’s certainly a task Hernández can handle.

The switch-hitting second baseman certainly didn’t make a name for himself as a power hitter during his seven years with the Philadelphia Phillies (career .105 ISO).

However, Hernández’s OBP was above average (.352), and he boasted a walk rate of 10.6% or higher in three of his final four seasons with the team.

Overall, Hernández logged a total of 1,987 plate appearances batting leadoff for Philadelphia, slashing .275/.360/.393 from that spot in the lineup. His leadoff walk rate (11.2%), wOBA (.331), BB/K rate (0.58) and wRC+ (104) are each better than his overall numbers for those respective stats.

That’s the kind of leadoff production Cleveland will certainly take. Again, Hernández doesn’t need to be an impact bat for the Indians. All he needs to do is find a home on the basepaths and help Lindor and José Ramírez pad their RBI totals.

It’s a relatively cut-and-dry plan, one which could potentially work wonders for Cleveland’s offense. Of course, that’ll only be the case if some production dips Hernández experienced last year were merely blips on the radar.

During the 2019 season, Hernández saw declines in walk rate (6.7%) and BB/K rate (.450), while also averaging his fewest pitches per plate appearance since 2015 (3.898).

Ironically, he was just coming off a year during which he generated career highs with all three of these statistics.

If these are indicators of what’s to come, it may hamper Hernández’s ability to be the leadoff hitter Cleveland needs.

That said, when looking at how his career was trending with each of these metrics, it initially appears as though 2019 was just an off year.

Walk rate
2016 -- 10.6%
2017 -- 10.6%
2018 -- 13.4%
2019 -- 6.7%

2016 -- .569
2017 -- .587
2018 -- .613
2018 -- .450

Pitches per plate appearance
2016 -- 3.902
2017 -- 4.014
2018 -- 4.250
2019 -- 3.898

As you can see, Hernández’s sudden downturn in plate patience does appear to be a bit fluky. Of course, we won’t know for sure if that’s the case until the 2020 campaign kicks off.

For what it’s worth, Hernández displayed signs his discipline may be bouncing back during Cleveland’s scrimmages with the Pirates.

It goes without saying that everything from preseason games needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

Still, of Hernández’s ten at-bats during these contests, half of them lasted at least five pitches. For the series, Hernández averaged 4.500 pitches per plate appearance.

Again, it’s hardly defining for the season ahead, but encouraging nonetheless.

Odds still favor Hernández’s stint with the Tribe being a short one. The likelihood of Cleveland re-upping with him this winter seemed low even before the 2020 season was stripped of ticket revenue.

However, as long as Hernández frequently finds himself on the basepaths this summer, he’ll have a big hand in ensuring the Indians’ offensive success.