With the 2021 season having come to a close, we are looking back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers.
Today we are looking at infielder Yonny Hernandez.
When you are a team that is in full on rebuilding mode, that is really bad and is going to finish in last and is going to have one of the worst records in the league, one of the things you have the opportunity to do is take a look at some players who otherwise might not get much of a chance to show their stuff in the majors. In particular, there is a type of player who isn’t high on prospect rankings, whose skill set isn’t seen as one that will translate at the highest levels, but who has performed well enough in the minors that a team that is going nowhere may give a shot to, figuring, well, he probably won’t pan out at the majors, but there’s always a chance he’s the exception, and we have nothing to lose by giving him a shot.
This is particularly the case with position players. Because of the number of pitchers a major league team needs, the attrition rate for arms, and the overall desperation teams have in trying to find players who can get guys out, a pitcher is more likely to get a look in the majors even if his stuff doesn’t seem to translate. You need long relievers, garbage time arms, and so a pitcher who gets results in the minors with stuff that is marginal at best will still generally get opportunities. And they sometimes succeed — look at Alex Claudio, who put up a 2.66 ERA and a 3.31 FIP in 162 innings from 2014-17 for the Rangers, while during much of that time he was shuffling up and down between AAA and the majors and not being used in meaningful situations unless there was no other option and fans were cringing and asking why he was on the roster.*
* Since then, Claudio has put up a 4.50 ERA and a 4.30 FIP in 182 innings, and you may say, aha!, we were right all along, he isn’t good, but that’s still a 102 ERA+, and he has a 1.3 bWAR over that stretch, so he’s still a serviceable major league pitcher. Also, Claudio’s 2.9 bWAR in 2017 for the Rangers is tied for the second highest among Rangers relievers over the past decade, trailing just Joe Nathan’s 3.2 bWAR in 2013. He’s tied with Sam Dyson, who had a 2.9 bWAR in 2016, but Dyson is an abuser so let’s forget about him and just note that Claudio is second.
Altuve hit well at high-A and AA in 2011 and ended up being a mid-season callup for a terrible Astros team that would end up losing 106 games that year. There was skepticism as to whether he was worth a major league job, but for a team that was going nowhere and starting guys like Jeff Keppinger and Bill Hall and Matt Downs at second base, it was worth giving Altuve a look.
Altuve slashed .276/.297/.357 in 57 games in 2011 as a 21 year old. It was enough to earn him the second base job early on in the team’s rebuilding process. And we all know how things turned out for Altuve and the Astros.
Altuve is the extreme outlier, of course, and for these sorts being even a useful role player is the exception, not the role, but again, if you’re a bad team, you have an opportunity to get a look at one of these players who have good minor league results but traits or characteristics that have evaluators believing they won’t succeed in the majors.
And thus, the Rangers were able to audition Yonny Hernandez in 2021.
Yonny is a switch hitting infielder who turned 23 in May. Yonny spent his first two pro seasons in the DSL, played short season ball in 2017, and then played full season ball in 2018 and 2019. Yonny got notice because he was a versatile defender in the infield, and because his combination of a great eye and a lack of power resulted in wacky slash lines. Yonny slashed .233/.370/.301 in 2017, .261/.374/.325 in 2018, and .289/.413/.330 in 2019.
The high OBP caught the eye of those who analyze the minor league box scores, and it would be asked why Yonny wasn’t higher on the prospect lists. An infielder who has a good glove, steals bases (albeit while also getting thrown out a fair amount), and an OBP close to .400 is a good player.
The problem is that history has shown that zero-power, high-walk guys in minors generally don’t succeed at the higher levels. A player who has no power can’t punish mistakes, and so major league pitchers will simply look to challenge those hitters, throw strikes, and try to simply overpower them. That means fewer pitches out of the strike zone, much fewer walks, and a plummeting OBP — negating the best skill the player has to offer.
Still, Yonny caught some eyes. In late August, 2020, he was added to the player pool at the Alternate Training Site. He got reps in spring training, 2021. And he started the 2021 season at AAA Round Rock, where he did what he does — play good defense, steal bases while getting thrown out too much (he was 21 for 31 on steals), and getting on base while hitting for zero power (.250/.424/.323 slash line in 251 plate appearances).
Normally, Yonny would have spent all of 2021 in the minors, and then become a minor league free agent after the season. But with the Rangers being terrible, Nick Solak slumping badly, and a lack of compelling infield options, when Eli White went to the injured list in early August, Yonny was called up to the majors to take his place. As with Curtis Terry, if he wasn’t on the 40 man roster at season’s end he would become a free agent, so he was someone you might as well add to the 40 man and active roster and take a look at while you can.
Yonny got a long look over the final two months, primarily playing third base, but also getting time at second and occasionally shortstop. He had a respectable start to his major league career, and ended the month of August with a .261/.350/.304 slash line.
Over the final month, however, things cratered for Yonny — he slashed .176/.282/.203 in 86 plate appearances in the months of September and October, finishing the season with a 1 for 20 stretch with no walks and 8 Ks. Yonny also made a couple of bad decisions when called upon to bunt that resulted in him being called out by Chris Woodward, as well as running into several outs on the basepaths due to overaggressiveness.
Yonny ended the season with a .217/.315/.252 slash line, with 17 walks and 32 Ks in 166 plate appearances. He didn’t homer — not surprising for a guy with four career homers as a professional — and had just five doubles and no triples, consistent with the concerns about his lack of power.
A look at the numbers underscores the weakness in Yonny’s offensive game. There were 411 players who had at least 150 plate appearances in the majors in 2021. Yonny Hernandez’s ISO of .035 was 411th out of those 411 players. There were only four other players who even had an ISO lower than .060.
Yonny Hernandez was patient — he swung at only 37.7% of pitches he saw, the sixth lowest rate in the majors, and the guys ahead of him were Yasmani Grandal, Daniel Vogelbach, Juan Soto, Brett Gardner and Max Muncy. And when he swung he made contact — his 86.4% contact rate was 26th in the majors, put him up in the top 10%.
But when he made contact, the ball didn’t go far. Yonny did have a fly ball off of Dylan Bundy in one of his first major league games that went 391 feet, per Statcast. No other ball off of Yonny’s bat went farther than 337 feet, though, per Statcast. His average distance on a ball in pay was 128 feet — 393rd out of 403 hitters in the majors with at least 100 balls in play. His average exit velocity, meanwhile, was 81.0 mph — of those 403 hitters, only Jarrod Dyson, Victor Robles and Alcides Escobar had lower exit velocities
Yonny doesn’t hit the ball hard. If you don’t hit the ball hard, you’re not going to be given the opportunity to draw a lot of walks by major league pitchers. And if your offensive game is centered around drawing walks, that’s a fatal flaw.
For what it is worth, Statcast had an xwOBA of .296 for Hernandez, compared to an actual wOBA of .265. A wOBA of .296 is fine if you’re a great defensive shortstop or catcher, but if you’re a good defensive second/third baseman who can play shortstop if you have to, its probably going to mean a bench job. And Yonny’s xwOBA in September was just .263. That could be because it was a long season after not playing in 2020 and he was wearing down. Or it could mean pitchers knew that they could challenge him and there was nothing he could do about it.
I suspect there’s a decent chance we’ll see Yonny survive the cuts immediately after the World Series. I’m doubtful he stays on the 40 man roster all winter, however — he seems like someone the Rangers will try to sneak through waivers and outright, once the time has passed when he can’t elect free agency. If he does stick around, either on the 40 man roster or off, he will be AAA depth and a guy who could be called up in an emergency if need be. I wouldn’t bet on seeing him in the majors for the Rangers in 2022, though.