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“Cesar was a shy young kid without a lot of confidence — ability, but not a lot of confidence,” Mackanin said on Tuesday prior to his team’s 8-3 loss to the Cubs. “I’ve seen him grow through the years into a solid Major League player. It took quite a while for him to play with the confidence he’s playing with now.”
Hernandez, the second baseman who hits leadoff, is among the biggest reasons why the Phillies took a .500 record into the second game of their four-game series at Wrigley Field. He’s hitting .324, playing second base almost as well as anyone in the Major Leagues and carrying himself like a guy who plans to stick around to see the completion of the Andy MacPhail/Matt Klentak rebuilding project.
“He just exudes confidence,” Mackanin said.
Like shortstop Freddy Galvis, Hernandez was signed out of Venezuela on July 2, 2006. Galvis’ glove earned him a Major League promotion in 2012, but Hernandez always had the better bat, which he’s shown the last couple of years.
Hernandez took over second base in 2015, after franchise icon Chase Utley was traded to the Dodgers. No one knew how long Hernandez would stay because of the rough edges in his game.
Initially, Hernandez was below average defensively (-5 Defensive Runs Saved in 2015) and ran into too many outs. But he’s developed into a potential All-Star in his age-27 season, contributing in every way possible. He’s fifth among second basemen with +2 DRS and ranks behind only the White Sox’s Tyler Saladino in Ultimate Zone Rating (150).
“Most of [my confidence] is [because] I don’t have to play under pressure,” Hernandez said in the visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field, through translator Diego Ettedgui. “I don’t feel pressure. I just come to the ballpark to have fun, play with a lot of energy. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
Hernandez seemed to turn a corner as a hitter in the second half of 2016, batting .298 with an .824 OPS. He led the National League in triples, with 11, and stole 17 bases (while getting caught 13 times).
“He hit well enough previous to last year,” Mackanin said. “We felt he was better. You keep pushing and coaching and explaining what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, working with him on different things. It just takes time. Sometimes guys get on the scene and they’re ready. Look at [the Dodgers’ Corey Seager]. Just a solid player from the get-go. Other players it takes a while to get where Cesar is now.”
Hernandez has become comfortable in his surroundings.
“Now I have more experience,” Hernandez said. “I’ve had a chance to get to know the pitchers. I know what they throw, how they like to face me. Little details like that help a lot. That goes a long way.”
Hernandez also added 15 pounds after spending last winter in Miami, working to get stronger.
“I see myself as a player that can play every day,” he said. “I know it’s 162 games. I want to be ready for that. I want to mentally and physically be ready to play as many games as possible.”
After a run of five consecutive trips to the postseason, capped by the championship season in 2008, the Phillies haven’t had a winning record since 2011. This was expected to be another season like last year, when Mackanin’s team went 71-91.
But Hernandez and his young teammates are capable of making this an interesting season, not just a year marked by the arrival of shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford.
The Phillies’ Triple-A shortstop is ranked as the No. 4 shortstop by MLBPipeline.com. The question asked often during Spring Training was who would hold on to his job when Crawford took his position, Galvis or Hernandez, but with Crawford struggling in Triple-A, don’t look for any changes in the immediate future.
Not that Hernandez is sweating it.
“To be honest with you, I don’t pay attention to who is under me,” Hernandez said. “I know there are very talented guys in Minor League baseball, but it’s not what I pay attention to. I just come to the ballpark, focus on myself and that’s it.”
Spoken like a veteran, not the shy kid Mackanin met 10 years ago.
Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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