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Sport In Moving an Inch, Kiké Hernández Stands Among Giants

08:56  17 october  2021
08:56  17 october  2021 Source:   si.com

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The Red Sox' center fielder is the postseason's breakout star, amid the complete chaos of the ALCS.

HOUSTON — A batter’s box is 24 square feet of possibility. Stand wherever you like, as long as one foot is not completely outside of the chalked rectangle. The permutations are many. But 90% of hitters plant their feet in their preferred spots at bat after at bat, game after game, year after year, like those yellow footprint guides in a TSA full body scanner.

“Ninety?” says Boston hitting coach Tim Hyers. “It might be higher. That’s my experience. Because they’ve had success to get here, and they don’t like changing a lot.”

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To understand why Kiké Hernández has claimed this postseason as his personal property—like some combination of Babe Ruth in 1928, Carlos Beltrán in 2004 and Randy Arozarena in 2020—you have to understand the mighty change he undertook just as these playoffs began. What would be small as measured by a ruler was enormous in the conventional ways of a hitter.

“He scooted up on the plate a hair,” Hyers says. “Just trying to get the ball a little closer to him.”

Hernández smashed two more hits, including another home run, in a 9–5 win for Boston in the American League Championship Series Game 2 Saturday. He is hitting .500 this postseason. Five of his 16 hits have been home runs. A .242 hitter after eight years in the majors, Hernández, 30, is the breakout player of the postseason. And it all began with something hitters hate to do: moving where they stand in the batter’s box.

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“We always knew he could hit,” Hyers says. “This … it’s amazing to watch how night after night he does it.”

Hernández always has been a hitter who likes to hit the ball well out in front of the plate. He likes to spin around the ball, which means he steps with his front foot slightly toward the left of the mound, rather than in a neutral stride, and relies on swift rotational power from his hips. Spinning is the watermark of a classic pull hitter. In his career Hernández is a .787 slugger to the pull side, but only .489 and .390 when he hits it to the other two-thirds of the field.

There is tariff for spinning. The need to hit the ball early leaves the pull hitter vulnerable to slower, breaking pitches that move away from his rotating body. The barrel is through the hitting zone before the ball arrives. Hernández is a career .195 hitter against breaking pitches, including .200 this year. In 2017, when Hernández and Hyers were both with the Dodgers, Hernández hit .125 against spin from righthanders, the kind that moved away from him.

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Hernández saw 33% breaking pitches this season, above the league average of 29.6%. In postseason baseball, holes are exploited with more vigor. On the eve of these playoffs, Hernández, Hyers and the Boston coaching staff made a mutual decision to move Hernández in the batter’s box.

“I don’t think it’s a major move,” Hyers says, “but you know, an inch here or there to get the breaking ball a little closer, and like you said, he’s always been a spin guy, always been good to the pull side, so getting the ball close to him make sense.

“He had that difficult in 2017 with breaking balls away. To his credit he worked and figured a way out.”

Thomas Shea/USA TODAY Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Thomas Shea/USA TODAY Sports

Hernández has seen 47 breaking pitches this postseason. He is hitting .700 against them, with seven hits in 10 at-bats decided by spin. An accomplished inside fastball hitter, Hernández is crushing everything thrown his way. His five home runs have resulted from three breaking pitches, one fastball and one off-speed pitch. He has seen 119 pitches and swung and missed only seven times—only twice on breaking pitches away, his old nemesis.

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“He’s a smart hitter,” Hyers says in giving his best explanation of how Hernández has overtaken the postseason. “His plan and getting the ball close to him and not chasing the breaking ball away. It’s not easy to do.

“He’s also found a good move, a mechanical move—his upper body and lower body is in synch—and having the ball close to him.”

By now you know where this series is headed: complete chaos. The Houston pitching staff is in shambles, with Lance McCullers out and Luis Garcia forced from Game 2 with a knee injury. In two games the Astros’s starters have recorded only nine outs. Twenty-six pitchers have been used by both sides to cover 35 half innings.

Asked if this chaos will linger through the series, Boston DH J.D. Martinez says, “Oh, yeah … and just wait until we get to Boston.”

Games at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox are the best home hitting team in baseball (.281), will deserve a soundtrack from a calliope. Twenty-five runs were scored in two games at Minute Maid Park, and that’s with both teams throwing their best starters and with fully rested bullpens. Now we get into the back of rotations and the rare postseason string of three straight games without a day off, which will deplete bullpens further.

The team that wins this series is going to do so by outslugging the other side. By himself with the way he is swinging, Hernández gives Boston an edge.

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Hernández began his career as an Astro. Drafted in the sixth round in 2009, he made his major league debut in 2014 in an Astros uniform when he replaced Jose Altuve at second base. Thirty days later, Houston traded him to the Marlins in a deadline deal in which it obtained outfielder Jake Marisnick.

Hernández was buried in a deep trove of Houston position prospects. Along with Hernández in the Houston minor league system in 2013 were Carlos Correa, then 18, Delino Deshields Jr., 20, Teoscar Hernández, 20, Tony Kemp, 21, Jonathan Villar, 22, Max Stassi, 22, Robbie Grossman, 23, George Springer, 23 and Matt Duffy, 24. (Martinez was in the big leagues with Houston at the time as well.) Only Correa remains with the Astros.

Over eight seasons Hernández gained a solid reputation for his athleticism, versatility and pop at the plate, especially against lefthanders who threw with an angle where the ball worked toward his body, such as Madison Bumgarner. A free agent last winter, Hernández chose to sign a two-year, $14 million deal with Boston because of the chance to play every day, to play for his friend Alex Cora and to take aim at the Green Monster at Fenway Park, which suits his pull power.

All of it has worked out charmingly. This season Hernández took 500 plate appearances for the first time in his career. He became a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder. And he posted an .845 OPS at Fenway, which included an .899 slugging percentage when he pulled the ball at the Fens. And he has become one of the team’s leaders, a go-to guy in the clubhouse and on the field.

“We have a lot of guys who buy in,” Hyers says, “and it’s a credit to our leadership. [Kyle] Schwarber, Kiké, J.D. … and the guys are game-planning together and talking about how to attack a certain pitcher. I’m most impressed by that so far: nine guys coming out and going after a pitcher.”

The Astros have a task in front of them the next three games that is bigger than the Green Monster. With a depleted staff they must find some way to slow down the Red Sox hitters at Fenway. Toughest of all, they must find an answer for Hernández, who is standing in the land of postseason giants.

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