Fantasy Baseball: Can Cesar Hernandez Keep Hitting for Power?

After hitting six homers all of last season, the Phillies' second baseman already has three bombs this year. Is this power surge a small-sample fluke, or are there signs that Hernandez is an improved hitter?

The Philadelphia Phillies are in the third year of their rebuild, and it appears as if the return to contention may not be too far off.

They have an intriguing young starting pitching staff which features guys who can miss a lot of bats, some position players with a lot of potential, and a minor league system bursting with talent on the doorstep to the Major Leagues.

For a few members of the 25-man roster, 2017 is a put up-or-shut up season, simply because there are a number of minor league prospects nipping at their heels. In particular, there appears to be a logjam forming at second base, where the team has exciting young prospects at both Triple-A and Double-A. And while it's great there is talent stacked up at that position, the Phillies currently employ a 27-year-old second baseman who is playing fantastic baseball at the big-league level and doesn't want to give up his starting gig.

Cesar Hernandez has suddenly become one of the best second basemen in the National League, and he has emerged as a viable fantasy option at the position, as well.

Following Tuesday night's victory over the New York Mets, Hernandez has a slash line of .345/.387/.586 with 3 home runs, 8 RBI, 13 runs scored and a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 165 (league average is 100). This follows a 2016 campaign in which he hit .294/.371/.393 with a wRC+ of 108 and 6 dingers.

In his team's first 13 games, Hernandez has already hit half the homers he did last year, including two leadoff blasts, one from each side of the plate.

That was his bomb to start off Sunday's game against the Washington Nationals, and here was the home run he hit from the left-hand side of the plate the day before, breaking a 2-2 tie in the 8th inning.

Coming into this season, Hernandez was mostly known as a small-ball type of player, a slap-hitter who led the league in bunt hits last season (15). But suddenly he's added power to his game. Here is where he ranks among qualified MLB second basemen in various categories so far this year.

Category Statistic Rank
Wins Above Replacement (per Fangraphs) 0.7 T-2nd
Average 0.345 4th
On-Base Percentage 0.387 6th
Slugging Percentage 0.586 3rd
wRC+ 165 T-2nd
Runs 13 1st
Homers 3 T-2nd

Hernandez' emergence as an All-Star caliber player isn't new to this season.

As of June 21st last year, Hernandez was struggling with a .248 batting average and a .293 on-base percentage, and he was benched by the team. There was no plate discipline, he was making a ton of base running errors, and he was hitting ball on the ground entirely too much.

After the benching Hernandez emerged as a completely different -- and much better -- hitter.

Before June 20th .248 .293 .336 67
After June 20th .327 .421 .433 134

The results show a dramatic increase across the board, and, as Dave Cameron of Fangraphs noted, it appears it is due in large part to a change in his approach. Instead of slapping everything to the opposite field, Hernandez began to drive the ball more to his pull side.

Split GB% FB% LD% Pull% Cent% Oppo%
Before June 20 52.1 24.6 23.4 29.1 38 33
After June 20 56.8 18.1 25.1 41.7 31.3 27
This Season 48.8 30.2 20.9 40.9 34.1 25

This year, he's maintained an emphasis on pulling the ball and is hitting more fly balls than ever before, posting a career-high 30.2% fly-ball rate after checking in with a 20.7% fly-ball rate in 2016. It helps that, in addition to the change in approach, he also bulked up in the off-season and added about 15 pounds of muscle to his once wiry frame.

Long story short -- Hernandez has become a completely different hitter since the beginning of last year, and he is putting up numbers that most didn't think were possible heading into last season.

And over the last calendar year, Hernandez ranks 23rd among all qualified MLB hitters in fWAR (5.2), which is more than Dustin Pedroia, Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Cabrera, Jackie Bradley, Xander Bogaerts, George Springer, and many other star players.

Is Hernandez going to hit 20 home runs this year? Probably not. But it seems clear that he has become one of the better all-around second basemen in baseball. He's been too good over too big a sample to dismiss it as a fluke.

And even if he is just a 10- to 15-homer guy, that increase in power -- along with his ability to steal bases, play quality defense and get on base at a high clip -- makes him a very valuable fantasy asset.