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Kiké Hernandez vows to improve against right-handed pitching

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The Dodgers’ most versatile weapon wants to be a complete player

MLB: Spring Training-Colorado Rockies at Los Angeles Dodgers Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX — Dodgers utility man Kiké Hernandez knows his reputation can be both a blessing and a curse but he came to camp with a positive outlook trying to expand his horizons and his role.

Hernandez’s roster spot is secure, thanks to his unique ability to play nearly every position, a must on a team that thrives on versatility and especially on one that will likely carry 13 pitchers and a short bench the majority of the time.

Last year Hernandez started at every outfield position and every infield position. In his three seasons with the Dodgers he has at least 10 starts at every one of those positions but first base, where he has started twice plus three more starts this spring including Thursday.

“The defense really plays,” manager Dave Roberts said. “In the outfield he is plus, I like him at shortstop and second base.”

His role the last couple of years has been pretty clear. In 2017 he started all 46 games in which the Dodgers faced a left-handed starting pitcher, and the year before he started 37 of 44 such games. Hernandez is a career .270/.364/.518 hitter against southpaws and in 2017 hit .270/.367/.579 with 10 home runs and 25 extra-base hits in just 177 plate appearances against them.

“He’s a lefty killer. To make it a priority that he plays versus left-handed pitching seems pretty obvious, but there is some navigating that has to take place, some time sharing, definitely not platooning,” Roberts said. “We’re thinking through it.”

The navigating for Roberts is even tougher this year because the Matt Kemp stopover in Los Angeles looks more and more like it’s turning into an extended stay. That’s another right-handed bat that will take time away from Hernandez. That Hernandez can play just about everywhere gives him more options, especially if and when players need rest. But with the Dodgers’ two main left-handed hitters — Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger — both proficient against left-handed pitchers, the opportunities for Hernandez at shortstop and first base will be few and far between.

“I want to give Doc the headache of ‘What are we going to do with Kiké?’ I feel like I’m ready. I don’t want to just be a super utility guy who can play everywhere but can’t hit righties,” Hernandez said. “I want to be the same offensive force as I am against lefties. That’s pretty much what I’m missing from being a complete player. It’s what I’m working on.”

Hernandez in his four major league seasons is a .207/.265/.324 hitter against right-handed pitchers in 496 plate appearances, including batting only .159/.244/.255 in 2017.

He tried to simplify his approach against right-handed pitchers after a second half last year that saw him limited to mostly pinch-hit duty against same-handed pitchers. He made only six starts against right-handers after the All-Star break, and was just 4-for-42 (.095) with no extra-base hits and three walks.

“Instead of battling and grinding out one at-bat, I was trying to do too much and prove a point to the coaching staff and the front office that I can hit righties and I want to play more,” Hernandez said. “But I learned the hard way the last few years that that’s not how you should do it.”

Among other things Hernandez said he is using his hands more, and Roberts said Hernandez is less pull happy now.

“He’s longer through the zone mechanically, and his approach is to the big part of the field. You’ve seen it all spring, with a ball out over he’s driving it the other way,” Roberts said. “That allows him to stay off the breaking ball and when he gets to a good count he can still hit the fastball.

“With his change in approach, which he did in September and through the postseason, and with his mechanical changes that he made in the winter, that has been very positive.”

In the playoffs Hernandez was 4-for-12 (.333) with a walk, a hit by pitch and a home run against right-handers. One of his three home runs in the Dodgers’ Game 5 pennant clincher in the NLCS came against Cubs righty Hector Rendon.

MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Chicago Cubs
Kiké Hernandez after hitting his third home run in Game 5 of the 2017 NLCS against the Cubs.
Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

That record-tying three-home run game came during a tumultuous time for Hernandez, whose family back home in Puerto Rico was recovering from the disaster of Hurricane Maria.

“For some reason the night before I said from now on I’m only going to picture positive things. Every mental aspect of the game is going to be positive and I’m never going to think of failure,” Hernandez. “It’s about jumping that hurdle of not being afraid of failure. I even told my fiancée, ‘Are you ready for what I’m going to do tomorrow night?’”

“What are you talking about,” she asked.

“I’m going to play a pretty incredible game tomorrow night,” Hernandez said.

The three home runs put Hernandez among a select group of players in postseason history, like Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, George Brett and Albert Pujols. The seven RBI tied an MLB postseason record as well. It was pretty incredible, after all.

That success has carried over into this spring, where Hernandez entering Thursday was 8-for-26 (.308) with three home runs, three doubles and a triple. Five of his seven extra-base hits, including all three homers, have been against right-handers.

“One thing is getting at-bats, and the other is trusting yourself a little more and getting that confidence which I did at the end of last year,” Hernandez said. “It’s funny that throughout my entire career and even in my first year in the majors with Houston, I want to say I hit righties better than lefties.”

This is almost literally true. From 2009-14, Hernandez in the majors and minors combined had a .737 OPS against lefties and a .728 OPS against righties. In 2014 it was .845 against right-handers and .785 versus left.

If Hernandez can improve against right-handers his playing time will increase. But where those at-bats will come from remains to be seen.

“Kiké has voiced that he wants to be more of an everyday player, and he’s done nothing but prove that he deserves more opportunities,” Roberts said. “We have a lot of good players. But his defense plays and it just gives us more confidence that if the situation presents itself he’s handled himself well and we can make it happen.”