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Dodgers

Dodgers’ Enrique Hernandez tinkered with his swing despite career year

Seattle Mariners v Los Angeles Dodgers
Enrique Hernandez’s versatility gets him into the Dodges lineup nearly every game, and he has retooled his swing to improve on a solid 2018 season and make sure he continues to be on the field.
(Jennifer Stewart / Getty Images)

By all accounts, Enrique Hernandez enjoyed a strong regular season in 2018. He thinks it was the best of his major league career. A dairy-free diet devotee for the first time, he played more than ever for the Dodgers. He hit a career-high 21 home runs. He continued to showcase his defensive versatility and manned every position but catcher.

He peaked during the regular season’s stretch, emerging as arguably the Dodgers’ best hitter over the final two months. He batted .349 with a .976 on-base-plus-slugging percentage while playing multiple positions. Manager Dave Roberts suggested he was the Dodgers’ most valuable player during their September playoff push.

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Then the postseason arrived and Hernandez regressed sharply. Pitchers cruelly exploited holes in his swing. He was especially susceptible to high fastballs. He was five for 41. He struck out 14 times. The struggle gnawed at him.

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“I knew something was off,” Hernandez said.

So Hernandez, 28, set out to do what most players don’t dare after a career season — he tinkered with his swing. After Christmas, he went to work with new Dodgers hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc and hitting strategist Brant Brown at Dodger Stadium on Monday through Friday alongside several teammates.

They sought to clean Hernandez’s mechanics. He tweaked his lower and upper halves. The result, Hernandez said, is “somewhat of a new swing.”

“I’m never going to say, ‘OK, I’m content with that,’ ” Hernandez said. “I’m going to always want more. I don’t want to be one of those players that has success in the regular season and not in the postseason.”

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Spring-training numbers are spring-training numbers, which means often misleading and irrelevant, but the early returns are encouraging. Hernandez is 11 for 29 in Cactus League games.

On Saturday, he cracked home runs his first two at-bats from the leadoff spot. Both came with two strikes against Seattle Mariners right-hander Erik Swanson. On Sunday, batting cleanup, he smacked a line drive to center field off Colorado Rockies right-hander Chad Bettis moments after making a slick diving stop and spin at second base to initiate an inning-ending double play. The single was also in a two-strike count.

“I think there’s more there,” Roberts said. “And not even just the power. It’s more of the quality of the at-bat, the production part of it. He’s very strong and the more he stays in the strike zone, the production and the power will be there.”

That projected production will earn Hernandez a spot in the Dodgers’ lineup nearly every day. It just won’t be the conventional way.

Hernandez will continue bouncing around the diamond, serving as the valuable malleable piece teams today covet. He’ll spend time at second base, shortstop and in the outfield.

In the past, Hernandez said, the role would have bugged him. He wanted to be a conventional everyday player, one who owned a position and arrived at the ballpark knowing where he would play. It was a milestone to reach. He didn’t want to be labeled a platoon or, worse, a bench player.

“That was a constant battle with myself,” Hernandez said. “And, eventually, I became my biggest enemy.”

He speculated coming to terms with his reality — not necessarily accepting it — helped fuel his career year. He thought about it this way: Would he rather be a utility player on a team in contention every year or accrue 600 plate appearances and watch the playoffs from home? He decided contributing on a winning team was preferable.

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Last season, Hernandez made 462 plate appearances in 145 regular-season games. If he produces at the level he reached in August and September — and continues hitting right-handed pitching after posting an .833 OPS against right-handers last season — he should get more chances. He wants more than that.

“I know there’s more in there,” Hernandez said, “and I know I can be a lot better player.”

jorge.castillo@latimes.com

Twitter: @jorgecastillo


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