Red Sox center fielder: Kiké Hernández
One of Alex Cora’s most controversial moves as manager was to insert Kiké Hernandez into the leadoff spot at the beginning of last year. There was nothing in the numbers that supported that decision, as Hernandez had just a career .313 on-base percentage over his first seven seasons in the league. Sure enough, Hernandez struggled over his first two and half months in Boston, slashing .224/.279/.371 with just 13 walks in 222 plate appearances.
It appeared the time was approaching for a change at the top of the lineup, but like so many other moves, Cora turned out to have pushed the right button. Hernandez hit an incredible .267/.372/.502 through the end of the season, providing not only the best offense of his career but becoming one of the biggest offensive threats on the team. Most surprisingly, Hernandez became a far more patient hitter, upping his walk rate from 5.9% to 13.2%.
The question now becomes whether or not Hernandez’s improvements in the second half of last year overshadow what he has shown in the first five and a half years of his career. When you go under the hood, however, you can see that Hernandez made substantial changes in his approach. His strikeout rate has dropped eight percent from 2016, and he has cut down on his chase rate by six points. A more patient approach allowed Hernandez to be more selective in the pitches that he did swing at, resulting in an exit velocity increase by nearly two percent and a barrel percentage increase of over one point.
Hernandez’s offensive improvement is really just an added bonus because he would be a valuable player based on defense alone. Despite splitting time between second and center field, Hernandez was one of the best defensive outfielders in the game last year. Nobody in the game was better at getting jumps on the ball, and he rode that skill to 8 Outs Above Average in just 88 games in center field. The ability to get defense like that at a premium position is indispensable and gives Hernandez a solid floor even if offense craters.
Overall, though, while I don’t believe that Hernandez is as good offensively as he was during that two-and-a-half-month stretch, he made sustainable improvements at the plate that should make him a viable leadoff hitter moving forward. Combine that with his plus-plus defense, and then are few better center fielders in the American League.
Stat Projections: .262/.343/.425, 17 HR, 51 RBI, 3.8 WAR