GLENDALE, Ariz. — Enrique Hernandez is ready to build on his breakout season last year for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
After five years in the big leagues, the late-blooming utility player is coming off his best campaign, setting career highs in hits (103), RBI (52), home runs (21), and walks (50). During off-season workouts at Dodger Stadium with returning hitting strategist Brant Brown and new hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc, Hernandez made adjustments to more efficiently and prominently use his lower half, building momentum into spring training.
On Wednesday night, he hit a three-run homer against the White Sox to improve his spring training home run total to a team-leading three. Through Wednesday, his 11 RBIs were tied for third in all of MLB spring training; his .750 slugging percentage was fourth, and his .375 batting average tied for fifth.
While spring training statistics do not count, they can increase momentum and build confidence.
"I'm seeing the ball pretty good, getting some results here and there, so the year is going pretty well so far," Hernandez said.
Listed generously at 5-foot-11, the 192-pounders' commitment to strength and conditioning have helped him make significant strides 10 years into a pro career that began in 2009, when the Houston Astros selected him in the sixth round of the amateur draft out of American Military Academy in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico.
The son of a Pittsburgh Pirates scout who also served as his coach, Hernandez, then 17, dominated his native Puerto Rico and challenged himself by playing travel ball internationally in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
At age 21, he broke into double digits in home runs with 13. The following year, 2014, at the Triple-A level, he began to play multiple positions.
"I grew up playing shortstop, and I believe that if you can play shortstop, you can play anywhere," Hernandez said. "I also played a little bit of second base for a year or two, but mostly shortstop, and then it wasn't until Triple-A that I started playing everywhere, by necessity."
That fielding versatility in 2014, led to his major league debut on July 1. At the end of the month, he was traded to the Marlins. A few months later, on Dec. 11, he was dealt to the Dodgers, along with catcher Austin Barnes, among others.
In a growing era of versatility, Hernandez is among the most versatile. He played six positions in 2015 and 2016, seven in 2017 and eight last season.
"There's the skill set part of it, where as a baseball player he has a lot of confidence that no matter where we put him, he feels like he's the best option," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "Anywhere he would play, I think he has that potential to be an elite defender. But just for us how it has been, we've moved him around the diamond to give runways for other people. But also, there's just a confidence he has with the glove. "
Last season, Hernandez played 63 games in centre field, 41 at second base, 22 at shortstop, 19 in right field, 18 in left field, nine at third base, eight at first base and his MLB pitching debut, in which he entered a tied, extra-inning game, and surrendered a three-run home run.
Embracing his versatility, Hernandez calls himself "super utility for the Los Angeles Dodgers" on his Instagram and Twitter accounts.
He is popular among fans for his cancer research fundraising efforts, broad communication skills — he speaks fluently in English and Spanish — and "every man size".
In the clubhouse, he radiates positivity, sharing a wry wit with teammates.
When he steps into the batters' box, he's stone-cold serious with Popeye-style power.
"He's very strong," Roberts said. "And the more he stays in the strike zone, the production and the power will be there."
Like many of his teammates, Hernandez' offensive production fizzled in the 2018 post-season. He hit .167 against Atlanta in the NLDS, .071 versus Milwaukee in the NLCS, including eight strikeouts, and .133 in the World Series loss to the Red Sox with four strikeouts.
That experience fuels his fast spring training start.
Looking no further for motivation, he said, "I'm in the big leagues, that's good enough motivation, and obviously, I'm motivated by winning."
More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports