Each week, Phillies Nation Editorial Director Tim Kelly will answer reader questions as part of the Phillies Nation Mailbag. Questions can be submitted by tweeting at @PhilliesNation, @TimKellySports or e-mailing your question to TSK@TimKellyMedia.com.
How can the Phillies get Cesar Hernandez out of Scott Kingery’s way at second base? – @MrMediaPA1
I’m asked some variation of this question quite frequently, and to be honest, I’m not sure why. Hernandez, 28, slashed .253/.356/.362 with 15 home runs, 60 RBIs, 19 stolen bases and 95 walks in 2018. After hitting .294 in consecutive seasons, it’s fair to wonder if Hernandez saw too many pitches for his own good in 2018, which may have contributed to his batting average dropping 41 points. So too may be the fact that he played much of the second-half of the 2018 season with a broken foot.
Kingery, a natural second baseman, slashed .226/.267/.338 with eight home runs, 35 RBIs and 24 walks in 452 at-bats in his rookie season. His -19.3 offensive WAR was one of the 10 worst marks among all qualified hitters in 2018. There’s some perception that him being moved around the diamond may have affected his offensive approach. The problem with that theory is that 374 of his 452 at-bats came at shortstop last year. He didn’t have more than 35 at-bats at any other position in 2018. Kingery will be moved around the diamond in 2019, especially if the Phillies ultimately sign Manny Machado to play third base. But because of multiple injured list stints and inconsistent performance from J.P. Crawford, Kingery was the Phillies primary shortstop in 2018. Were there some growing pains early on? Sure, but by the end of the season, Kingery, a former second-round pick, was a pretty proficient fielder at shortstop.
If Kingery was mishandled in any way in 2018 it was pushing him into a “one size fits all” offensive approach based around seeing as many pitches as possible. Kingery hit .291 on balls that he put in play in his rookie season. His .226 batting average suggests that he simply didn’t put the ball in play enough to give himself a chance to be successful. Kingery saw 4.04 pitches per plate appearance in an unsuccessful offensive campaign in 2018, one year after he hit .304 with 26 home runs and 65 RBIs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2017.
Last December, manager Gabe Kapler said that Kingery, who will turn 25 in April, felt that he got too caught up in seeing pitches in 2018. Kapler, entering his second season as Phillies manager, said that Kingery may be best served being aggressive early in counts. If he fouls a pitch off, he still could work a deeper count and force the starting pitcher to exhaust extra pitches. Or he may put the ball in play, which usually leads to good things happening.
In January, Kapler predicted that Kingery will be the Phillies most improved player in 2019. That may very well prove to be the case, but with a healthy foot, Hernandez should perform more like the player that FanGraphs rated as the seventh best second baseman in the sport between 2016 and 2017. And if both of those things happen, the Phillies will be a better team for it. And they’ll need to be a better team in 2019, given the improvements made around the rest of the National League East.
Long-term, Kingery will probably be the Phillies second baseman. But as Marwin Gonzalez, Ben Zobrist and Whit Merrifield have shown in recent seasons, it’s extremely valuable for teams to have a star super-utility player. While the Phillies have a second baseman that, at worst, is a league average player at his position, trying Kingery in that role, something that they never really got the chance to do in 2018, makes sense.
If Kingery breaks out in 2019, he’ll find his way into the lineup every game. Maybe it will be third base. It may be a little bit all over. Heck, if he’s playing up to his potential, he could usurp Hernandez at second base and push the longest-tenured Phillie into a bench role. But he hasn’t proven himself as a hitter at the major league level yet. So in an offseason with an oversaturated second base market, it made sense for the Phillies to hold onto Hernandez, and will continue to make sense until Kingery proves to be a better option.
For what it’s worth, I don’t really buy into the idea that playing a player out of position can ruin their potential to be a star player. For as hard as Rhys Hoskins worked to become an outfielder over the past two years, he just wasn’t a fit there. His -17.4 defensive WAR in 2018 was the second worst mark among all qualified fielders. Still, Hoskins has 52 home runs and 144 RBIs in his first 728 major league at-bats. His offensive production in his rookie season of 2017 was enough to convince the Phillies to move on from Tommy Joseph, and, more notably, part ways with Carlos Santana after the first year of a lucrative three-year contract this past offseason. Great players, or even very good ones, either figure out how to be effective at another defensive position or show you enough offensively to warrant moving on from the incumbent at their natural position.
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