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.
Yonny Hernandez is something of a throwback.
He’s a throwback to the days when your middle infielders were small, fast, light hitting guys who played slick defense and bunted and hit behind runners and all that.
Especially the “small” part.
Both B-R and the Rangers website have Yonny listed at 5’9”, 140 lbs. One hundred and forty pounds for a professional athlete seems ridiculously small to me. I mean, not for a lightweight or featherweight pro boxer, I guess, but for someone in one of the Big Four U.S. sports.
Yonny is the only player in the B-R database with at least 25 games played in the 21st century who is 140 pounds or less. If we up it to 150 pounds, there are nine other players, but most of their careers ended early in the 21st century, with the last one standing before Yonny being former Marlin and Met great Luis Castillo, whose last season was in 2010.
If we look at 1970 forward, there are only two players other players at 140 or less with 25 games played — and interestingly enough, both are former Rangers. One is Sandy Alomar, the long-time infielder who actually made the 1970 All Star Game while with the Angels and followed it up with a 5.2 bWAR season in 1971, but who generally was a utility type. Alomar slashed .245/.290/.288 for his career, with 227 steals in 307 attempts, and played his final two seasons in 1977-78 with the Rangers.
The other is The Governor, Jerry Browne. Browne was part of one of the more significant moves in Rangers history, as he was traded, along with Oddibe McDowell and Pete O’Brien, to the Cleveland Indians in December, 1988, for Julio Franco. Browne had had a successful rookie season with the Rangers in 1987 as their starting second baseman, but 1988 was a down year impacted by injury.
Moving the upper range to 150 lbs. picks up another couple of dozen players, and you see familiar names — John Cangelosi, Bip Roberts, Freddie Patek, Glenn Hubbard, Manny Lee, Joey Cora, Manny Trillo, Ozzie Smith, Juan Beniquez — who generally fit the fast, quality up-the-middle defense, little power archetype that describes Yonny. These are players that, back in the 70s and 80s, weren’t exactly common, but also weren’t unheard of. Yonny wouldn’t have seemed so unique back then.
Yonny is also, though, a throwback to the type of player that, in the early days of the baseball webosphere, would have had a following among the saber-inclined. In the late 1990s/early aughts, before the Saber Revolution changed the baseball landscape, Yonny is the type of player who statheads would see toiling in the minors and develop an affinity for. Quality defense at a key position, good baserunning, high OBP due to high walk totals...he’s a saber-gem that has been overlooked by the hidebound traditionalists running MLB, they (or, to be honest, we, since I was part of that crowd) would have said. There’d probably have been a “Free Yonny Hernandez!” campaign floating around for a while.
You see, back then, one of the fundamental axioms of sabermetrics in the early days, one of the things Bill James made a primary point of emphasis in the days of the Baseball Abstract, is that minor league statistics are meaningful. That may seem strange to those of us who, in the 21st century, obsess over minor league box scores, but there was, at one point, something of a dismissiveness as to how meaningful minor league statistics were. Players who performed in the minor leagues would be overlooked due to perceptions about their skills and talents.
And thus you had Wade Boggs, who slashed .311/.400/.370 in the Eastern League — with 53 walks against 25 strikeouts — in 109 games in the AA Eastern League as a 20 year old in 1978, only to spend a second season in AA in 1979. Boggs then spent two full seasons at AAA Pawtucket in 1980 and 1981. Boggs burst on the scene in 1982, slashing .349/.406/.441 with a 3.9 bWAR in 381 plate appearances as a rookie, and finishing third in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting.*
* The 1982 rookie class was remarkable, one of the best classes, I think, in MLB history. Cal Ripken, Jr., won the Rookie of the Year Award in the American League. Kent Hrbek, who had a long, successful career with the Minnesota Twins, finished second. Right behind Boggs in the voting was Seattle Mariners reliever Ed Vande Berg. All four players had at least 3.0 bWAR that year, with Ripken at 4.7 bWAR. Gary Gaetti, Von Hayes and Jesse Barfield also got votes in the A.L., and all had very successful major league careers. And the one other player who got votes that year in the A.L.? Ranger legend Dave Hostetler. Who had a -0.2 bWAR that year, and who did not go on to have a very successful major league career.
Meanwhile, in the National League ROY voting, Steve Sax and Johnny Ray finished first and second. Willie McGee and Chili Davis were third and fourth. Ryne Sandberg, who, like Ripken and Boggs was a first ballot HOFer, finished sixth. Steve Bedrosian, who would win a Cy Young Award as the Phillies closer in 1987, was seventh. Dave LaPoint and Eric Show, who each spent over a decade in the majors, were eighth and ninth. Sax, Ray, Sandberg and Bedrosian all posted at least 3 bWAR that year.
There were also a whole bunch of guys who had really strong careers who debuted that season I could mention as well. But when you’ve got (per JAWS) the third best shortstop of all time, the third best third baseman of all time, and the 11th best second second baseman of all time all getting ROY votes, that’s a hell of a class.
You had Edgar Martinez, who put up a combined .273/.389/.374 slash line as a 22 year old between AA and AAA in 1985, spent all of 1986 in AA (with a .264/.383/.390 slash line), then spent most of 1987 and 1988 mashing AAA pitchers. It wasn’t until 1990 that Martinez spent a full season in the majors, at which point he slashed .302/.397/.433 with a 5.6 bWAR as the Seattle Mariners’ third baseman.
Boggs and Martinez didn’t suddenly get good those seasons — they had been good, major league caliber players whose teams had ignored their minor league performance and not brought them up because of perceived flaws. It was such a thing that Bill James introduced the Ken Phelps All Stars in his Abstract one year — players who hadn’t gotten an opportunity despite their minor league performance indicating that they were major league caliber players, named after Ken Phelps, who finally, at the age of 29, got regular playing time for the Seattle Mariners in 1984 and slashed .241/.378/.521 in 101 games, beginning a five year stretch where he slashed .249/.395/.530 with a 149 OPS+.*
* The last year of that stretch, 1988, Phelps was dealt to the New York Yankees mid-season in a deal that sent Jay Buhner to the Mariners. Phelps continued to mash for the Yankees in 1988 after the trade, but his career went south after that — not surprising, given he was in his mid-30s — and so Phelps is remembered as a Seinfeld punch line rather than as a success story.
With the Saber Revolution, and then the “Beer and Tacos” synthesis of stats and scouting, this has become much less of a thing in the 21st century. And part of the “Beer and Tacos” synthesis was us statheads learning that certain statistical profiles are, in fact, less likely to translate from the minors to the majors.
One profile, for example, would be command-oriented righthanded pitchers whose best pitch is their changeup. Those pitchers often put up great stats in the lower minors — and sometimes even in the higher levels — but generally end up getting lit up by either AAA caliber hitters or major league caliber hitters. Tyler Phillips falls into that category. Of course, so did Kyle Hendricks when he was traded for Ryan Dempster, and that’s a reminder that there are occasionally guys who fit these profiles who actually do pan out.
Another example, one we have talked about frequently in regards to Yonny Hernandez, are minor league hitters who have little power, but who have high OBPs driven by high walk totals. The problem with these sorts of players is that, at the higher levels — especially the majors — pitchers will simply challenge them, since there’s little risk of the hitter doing any sort of extra base damage. That means the walk rate drops significantly in the majors, the OBP drops significantly, and their low slugging percentage drags their overall offensive performance to an unacceptably low level.
There is the occasional player who is able to succeed in the majors with this sort of profile — if you haven’t checked out Eddie Stanky’s B-R page, you should, because its insane — but generally speaking, it doesn’t work.
And thus, over 1500 words into this write-up, we get to Yonny Hernandez.
Yonny has been on the radar of those of us who obsess over minor league boxscores and stat lines for some time due to his great OBPs. In 2018 he spent most of the year at low-A, where he slashed .260/.372/.327. In 2019, splitting the year between high-A and AA, he slashed .283/.413/.330. He also stole a bunch of bases (albeit not always at a great percentage). 2020 was wiped out, of course, but Yonny went to Round Rock for 2021, and slashed .250/.424/.323 while playing all three infield positions.
A middle infielder who can play slick defense, run, and get on base 40% of the time has a lot of value, and thus it was asked, why is Yonny in AAA rather than in the majors? The answer to that, in essence, was that guys with a 50-75 ISO in the minors aren’t going to draw walks in the majors, so he wasn’t going to get on base 40% of the time. To which it was replied, well, we won’t know until he gets a shot.
Fortunately for those of us looking for experimental data in the majors for this sort of player, Yonny did get a shot, being promoted to the big leagues in early August, and playing regularly, mostly at third base, the rest of the way.
The initial returns were positive. Through the end of August, Yonny was slashing .261/.350/.304, good for an 84 OPS+. That’s not anything great, but its decent for a middle infielder, particularly one who profiles as a role player (as Yonny does).
Then things went south in September. Yonny slashed .176/.282/.203 over the final month of the year, including a .111/.231/.156 slash line over his final 15 games. He ended the year with a .217/.315/.252 slash line in 166 plate appearances, resulting in a 61 OPS+, although his base running and defense was good enough for a 0.9 bWAR.
I viewed Yonny as a potential 40 man roster casualty heading into the offseason. He was eligible to become a minor league free agent at the end of 2021 if he wasn’t on the 40 man roster, and given the open audition nature of the second half of the season, it made sense to bring him up and take a look at him to help decide whether he was worth using a 40 man roster spot in the offseason — if you decide not to keep him on the 40 man, well, he would have become a free agent at the end of the year anyway, so no big issue with waiving him and potentially losing him that way. And it isn’t as if the Rangers are lacking in infielders in the organization — particularly after the signings of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien.
But Yonny has, to date, survived the cut. And there are reasons why he would stick around on the 40 man roster into the regular season. His versatility makes him useful minor league depth, someone who can be brought up and sent back down if an infielder gets banged up for a day or two or needs a short stay on the injured list. His xwOBA of .297 in 2021 was better than his .265 wOBA, which suggests that he would perform better offensively going forward. He could be a useful speed and defense guy off the bench.
The early returns on his offense, though, suggest the concerns about his walk rate translating to the majors are merited. In Round Rock, prior to his promotion, Yonny walked 20.3%. In prior minor league seasons he generally walked around 15% of the time.
In his stint in the majors in 2021, Yonny’s walk rate was 10.2%. That’s not bad — in fact, its good! The major league average is an 8.4% walk rate. Yonny drew walks at an above-average rate.
The problem, however, is that if your offensive value is driven entirely by your ability to draw walks, walking at an above-average rate isn’t good enough. You need to draw walks at an elite rate. And Yonny Hernandez isn’t likely to do that if pitchers fill up the zone against him.
Looking at players with at least 150 plate appearances in 2021, the percentage of pitches that Yonny saw in the strike zone wasn’t actually as high as I would have expected — at 44.3%, he was 51st out of 411 hitters. So it isn’t as if he’s just having pitchers throw meatballs up there.
But he’s seeing more pitches in the zone than most hitters do, and he can’t do anything with them. He had an average exit velocity in the majors of 83.1 mph — out of 411 hitters with 150+ plate appearances, there were only five hitters with a lower average exit velocity. Only three hitters had a lower hard hit percentage than Yonny’s 15.9%. Only eight hitters had a lower barrel rate than Yonny’s 0.9%.
So, without significant improvement in Yonny’s ability to hit the ball hard, it seems unlikely he’ll hit enough to be a major league contributor unless he provides great defense and baserunning. And while Yonny has played all three infield positions, from what I have seen, his defense at shortstop is not considered a strength. Yonny also was the recipient of criticism from Chris Woodward for mental mistakes in 2021, both on the basepaths and at the plate, which isn’t the sort of thing that you want to have happen as a fringe guy battling for a bench role.
We shall see how things play out for Yonny Hernandez going forward. He could be a 40 man casualty once the lockout is over and the Rangers start adding more major leaguers. He could spend the season in AAA. He could end up carving out a bench role. He could end up on the waiver wire mid-season.
We shall see.