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Hernandez's sharp eye, patience paying off

Phillies' leadoff man has a hitting plan and sticks with it
MLB.com @ToddZolecki

WASHINGTON -- Cesar Hernandez has become one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball and an indispensable presence in the Phillies' lineup because he has one of the best eyes in the game.

He entered Friday night's series opener against the Nationals at Nationals Park fifth in baseball in chase rate, which shows how often a batter swings at pitches outside the strike zone. He has swung at just 16.1 percent of pitches outside the zone this season, according to Statcast™. Only Boston's Mookie Betts (13.4 percent), Cincinnati's Joey Votto (14.1 percent), Minnesota's Joe Mauer (14.8 percent) and Tampa Bay's Daniel Robertson (15.0 percent) are better.

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WASHINGTON -- Cesar Hernandez has become one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball and an indispensable presence in the Phillies' lineup because he has one of the best eyes in the game.

He entered Friday night's series opener against the Nationals at Nationals Park fifth in baseball in chase rate, which shows how often a batter swings at pitches outside the strike zone. He has swung at just 16.1 percent of pitches outside the zone this season, according to Statcast™. Only Boston's Mookie Betts (13.4 percent), Cincinnati's Joey Votto (14.1 percent), Minnesota's Joe Mauer (14.8 percent) and Tampa Bay's Daniel Robertson (15.0 percent) are better.

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It partially explains why Hernandez, 27, is on pace for the best season of his career. He entered Friday hitting .284 with three home runs, 11 RBIs, a career-high .406 on-base percentage and a career-high .819 OPS. He ranked 20th out of 173 qualified hitters in on-base percentage.

"I don't really know if I'm playing the best baseball of my career right now," Hernandez said through the team's interpreter. "I see myself as the same player as I was before. One thing that is different is that I'm more confident."

Hernandez is so confident that he is willing to wait for his pitch to hit, even if it means letting another relatively good pitch be called a strike.

"In a way, you have to be faithful to your hitting plan and stick with it," he said.

It has not always been that way. Look at Hernandez's chase rate the previous four seasons: 2014 (31.2 percent), 2015 (26.9 percent), 2016 (23.8 percent) and 2017 (21.0 percent).

It has improved every season.

"It's basically three things," Hernandez said. "Number 1, it's the experience. Number 2, it's playing every day. When you play every day it's easier to recognize good pitches and stay in the zone. Number 3, I've gotten to know the pitchers here, especially the ones in the division. If I know somebody likes to throw a sinker, I know where the sinker is going to go, I know how much it drops. If it's a slider, I know how much he can throw it in. I've started to recognize those pitches better."

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said: "I think the way it works is, I don't care if I get to two strikes, I don't care if I hit with a strike on me, it doesn't bother me if I take a pitch that I might have been able to drive. The demonstration is that he feels very confident and comfortable hitting in any count."

It is a natural gift in many ways. How many players are told to be more selective and simply cannot help themselves from swinging?

"Let's just call that a talent," Kapler said. "But then I think he's also studied opposing pitchers. It almost feels like he knows what's coming out before it comes out."

Hernandez has been in the starting lineup 30 times in 31 games this season. Many expected Scott Kingery to steal playing time from him at second base, but Hernandez has been one of the team's best hitters.

Like Rhys Hoskins and Odubel Herrera, he is difficult to sit.

"It feels great to be part of that core because we all see each other as a family," Hernandez said. "We're all fighting for the same purpose. We all have the same goal: win."

Extra bases
Right-hander Jerad Eickhoff threw two simulated innings Friday, and it went well. Eickhoff is on the DL with a strained right lat. The Phillies believe he could rejoin the rotation later this month. Right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. is scheduled to throw live BP on Saturday. He is on the DL with a strained right forearm.

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

Philadelphia Phillies, Jerad Eickhoff, Cesar Hernandez, Mark Leiter Jr.