And the super utility man stabilized a key position.
Welcome to our 2021 Boston Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2021. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at the year that was for Enrique Hernández.
2021 in a sentence
Enrique Hernández came into this season expecting to move around a bit while spending most of his time at second base, but ultimately was a hugely important stabilizing force in center field.
There was a whole lot that Hernández did well for the Red Sox, particularly in the second half, but to me the biggest thing that stood out was the quality of contact. He’s never going to be a high BABIP player, but his .278 mark was actually his best since way back in 2015, his second season in the majors. He hit the ball extremely well this season, putting up an average exit velocity of at least 90 mph for the first time since that 2015 season, and hitting the ball hard (by Baseball Savant’s measure) over 43 percent of the time, just tenths of a percentage point off his career high. Baseball Savant does a great job of visualizing where players rank in some of this stuff relative to their peers, and the amount of red in his visual from Hernández speaks volumes of the way he hit the baseball.
In addition to the quality of contact, the plate discipline from Hernández was also a great development and not really something most of us saw coming. Many (read: me) were wary of Hernández being the plan at leadoff largely because he had not drawn many walks in the previous two seasons, but he got back to it in 2021. He finished the year with a 10.4 percent walk rate, his highest since 2018. In fact, if you add together his walk rates from 2019 and 2020, it’s only 1.5 percentage points higher than his 2021 rate. Most important to this development was Hernández cutting his chase rate down from 30 percent in 2020 (and 27 percent in 2019) to 24 percent this past year. He needed to adjust his approach to make it work in that leadoff spot, and credit is due because he did just that.
The other offensive positive I wanted to look at was his performance against left-handed pitching. This doesn’t have the same kind of impact over a full season as just hitting the ball well and not swinging at bad pitches, but for this Red Sox team it mattered. For whatever reason, Boston has had trouble in recent years against left-handed pitching, and Hernández helped counteract that. While he was just league-average against righties, he put up a really impressive 127 wRC+ against southpaws.
But of course, I’m burying the lede here a bit with his positives, because in my mind at least it was the defense that really defined this season for Hernández. A career utility player, he was looking forward to some positional stability in 2021, and that was expected to be mostly at second base. Team needs changed, though, and a void needed filling in center field. Hernández ended up settling in there on an everyday basis and was one of the very best defensive center fielders in baseball once he took over. Anyone who watched this team knows defense was their biggest issue all year long, so getting Gold Glove caliber defense up the middle was a huge reason they were able to keep their head above water in the second half and ultimately make a run deep into the postseason.
Right now we look at Enrique Hernández and his 2021 in an enormously positive light, but back in the first half of the year that wasn’t really the case. His adjustment to the leadoff spot was not going very well, and while he wasn’t the unplayable kind of bad, his struggles were illuminated in such an important spot in the lineup. All the way through the All-Star break, he was very slightly below-average with a 99 wRC+. The first month in particular was tough, and many (read: me) were calling for him to be moved out of that top lineup spot. He eventually was and immediately turned things around for the rest of the year (even after returning to that spot not long after being removed), but for the first third or so of the season he felt like one of the few negatives on the roster.
If we want to find a flaw for his whole season at the plate, you probably have to break it down a bit more and look at his performance against breaking balls. Hernández was killer against fastballs and solid against offspeed pitches, but breaking balls were a real problem. Per Baseball Savant, his wOBA against the pitch type was just .264, and his expected wOBA based on batted ball data was not much better. He whiffed at a 38 percent rate as well, and looking forward he can probably expect to be peppered with a few more of those in 2022.
The Big Question
The answer to this one is an emphatic: Shut up, Matt. My theory in the linked post was that Hernández should ditch trying for launch angle and start trying for singles to get on base and be a traditional leadoff hitter. He was just fine in that role as mentioned above, and he did it by hitting more balls in the air, not fewer. So, no, he should not.
2022 and Beyond
Hernández has one more year on his contract with the Red Sox, and it would be pretty surprising if he was traded this winter. There’s some chance he shifts back to second base for the coming season, but more likely is that he’ll be playing the same role he played this past year, playing every day in center field and likely spending a good chunk of time in the leadoff spot as well.