Miami Marlins fans were probably disappointed in the return for the Jarred Cosart trade. Cosart himself has not proven to be a good pitcher despite seemingly good stuff, and there are questions about his makeup and character that may need addressing. For that, Miami gave up some of their most valuable trade chips, sending out top prospect Colin Moran, outfielder Jake Marisnick, and the team's competitive balance pick to acquire him.
But it is important we not forget the player who, at first glance, appears to only be a utility man thrown into the deal. Enrique Hernandez, aka "Kike" Hernandez, does not seem like much. He does not have an imposing frame, does not hit the ball hard, and played multiple positions for the Houston Astros before coming here, all of which tend to get you labeled as a utility player. But according to many Astros fans, Kike is more than just another guy.
A few years ago, Hernandez looked like minor league depth. He was struggling to hit better than 10 percent below league average even as he was advanced relatively quickly. At age 21, he spent most of last year in Double-A and struggled mightily, posting only a .236/..297/.375 (.302 wOBA) batting line. All of a sudden, this year, he broke out. He started the year repeating Double-A, but a .325/.375/.475 (.386 wOBA) line quickly bought him a Triple-A promotion. He raked there as well, batting .337/.380/.508 (.388 wOBA) with eight home runs in only 289 plate appearances.
Sure, the strong minor league season can be attributed merely to some good fortune on balls in play and the Pacific Coast League. But it is not easy to luck yourself into a line 31 percent better than the PCL average, and it should be noted that Oklahoma City is actually a pitcher's park within the PCL. And while half a season of breakout work is nothing to get overly excited about, there are some good signs of change. The Crawfish Boxes's CRPerry1, one of the many editors and staff members of the fantastic SB Nation Houston Astros blog, dropped by a few days ago and joined the discussion on the trade. In it, he mentioned the changes Hernandez has made to improve his game.
During the offseason, he eliminated a high leg kick from his swing, and also the Astros have been working with several hitters (including Alex Presley, who they tried to convert from a GB machine to a LD-hitter, somewhat successfully) to attack the ball to generate the most favorable launch angle; giving the swing plane a bit more upward trajectory, where needed.
Kike’s swing change is the reason his bat took off in 2014 — it’s not smoke and mirrors. I think Marlins fans will be really happy with him, either as a Swiss-army-knife guy who plays every position (even CF!) well, or as a regular at 2B, SS, or LF. I can’t predict he’ll be Ben Zobrist, but it’s not an irrational comp for his ceiling. Most likely, he’s Jeff Keppinger with a little more power, a few more walks, and better defense – a really nice player on any roster.
It is difficult to verify this information without seeing the work he did in the past, but it seems plausible that eliminating a hitch in his swing has helped speed up his bat and get him more success at the plate. That could explain why, early on, he is posting acceptable BABIP rates after struggling to puncture the .300 mark earlier in the minors. For a guy who is relatively small and a middle infielder by trade, Hernandez certainly has shown good drive on his swings too; he owns a 21 percent line drive rate and only a 39 percent ground ball rate. Contrast that with the ground ball parade of middle infielders the Marlins have hosted this year, including Donovan Solano, Adeiny Hechavarria, and current second baseman Jordany Valdespin.
But the progression of Hernandez's game is also visible by tracking him year to year. A few years ago, he was walking in five percent of his plate appearances and had a noodle bat, a classic description for a future bench player. In Double-A, despite the bad season, he hit 13 home runs and posted a .140 ISO, which would have been considered better than his mark the previous year if we don't give extra power credit for his triples. He also upped his walk rate to seven percent. This year, he smacked nine homers at two different levels and walked an even amount, then came to the majors and posted a great strikeout-to-walk ratio.
It is impossible to tell just how long he will keep up the 12 percent whiff rate and the 8.8 percent walk rate, but given the early plate discipline numbers, it does not seem out of the ordinary. Hernandez has swung at just 25 percent of pitches out of the strike zone so far, which would have been only higher than two Marlins hitters with at least 100 plate appearances this year (the incomparably patient Christian Yelich and Casey McGehee). His minor league history suggests that he has decent contact rates and should be able to avoid the strikeout as well.
The walk rate remains the only question mark in "Kike's" game right now. In terms of sustainability, everything else we have seen so far in his ..277/.341/.410 (.333 wOBA) batting line looks manageable. This is why it is imperative the Marlins play Hernandez as much as possible. It is uncertain that Hernandez has a future with the organization, but it is fairly certain that Valdespin is not the future at the position at age 26. Why not throw Hernandez out for the remaining 50 or so games and see how he performs? The Marlins have little to lose, as the alternative is probably just as bad if not worse.
The Marlins could have something in Kike Hernandez. Let's hope they do not sleep on him like we initially did.