Hernandez looks to build on second-half surge

Hernandez looks to build on second-half surge

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Larry Bowa noticed a change in Cesar Hernandez in the second half of last season, a change the Phillies' bench coach hopes he carries into 2017 and beyond to become one of the best second basemen in baseball: Hernandez began coming to Bowa before games to run through the lineup card with him.

"Slight pull, straightaway, pull," Hernandez said, running through the hitters' tendencies.

Hernandez had never done that in the past.

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"It's more than just, 'Let me suit up, catch some grounders and get four at-bats,'" Bowa said Friday morning at Spectrum Field, where the Phillies held their first full-squad workout. "I had told him to pay attention to how we're playing the hitters. Move on counts. The count is 2-0, 3-1, the big hitters are up, shade them a little bit. If it's 0-2, 1-2, shade them the other way. I want to get to the point where I don't have to look at him on every pitch. And in the second half, I felt comfortable with it."

Statcast: Hernandez shows range

Hernandez hit .248 with six doubles, four triples, two home runs, 16 RBIs and a .630 OPS in 245 plate appearances through June 20. He stole just three bases in eight attempts. He made too many mental mistakes.

It is why Phillies manager Pete Mackanin benched Hernandez in back-to-back games in June in Minnesota.

"I understood the message," Hernandez said through the Phillies' interpreter. "I knew I needed to improve. I needed to do things better. It's what I focused on."

After the midseason benching, Hernandez hit .327 with eight doubles, seven triples, four home runs, 23 RBIs and an .854 OPS in 377 plate appearances the rest of the season. He stole 14 bases in 22 attempts. He reduced the mental mistakes.

Hernandez's OPS ranked 37th out of 128 qualified hitters in that stretch.

"I tried to focus more on the game and every situation that we were in," Hernandez said. "Every situation, every inning. Those little things made a difference."

Hernandez's four-hit game

But can Hernandez repeat it? Did he truly figure out something, or was it just a hot streak?

Hernandez came into camp ready to prove it wasn't a fluke. He said he added about 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason (he weighed 165 pounds last season) to maintain his strength over the 162-game schedule.

Does that mean more home runs in 2017?

"No," Hernandez said. "I focus on line drives and ground balls."

Hernandez should be a better basestealer, too. He said he thinks he should steal at least 30 bases this year.

Hernandez certainly has the speed. His three fastest times going from Home to First from the left side of the plate last season (non-bunt plays), according to Statcast™, were 3.86, 3.92 and 3.93 seconds. Compare that to Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton (3.76, 3.79, 3.83) and Miami's Dee Gordon (3.77, 3.81, 3.84).

"From about July on he played the way we think he can play," Bowa said. "And I think the mental mistakes were mostly eliminated. When you compare the two halves it's not even close. He's starting to think a little bit. He's starting to believe in himself."

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.