No one is questioning Teoscar Hernández’s hitting anymore. A couple of Silver Slugger awards will do that
CLEARWATER, Fla.—Teoscar Hernández entered the last couple spring trainings as the Blue Jays’ X-factor. This year he arrived as the real deal.
The Jays no longer just hope for success from Hernández, they’ve come to expect it. That’s what a pair of back-to-back Silver Slugger awards will do for a guy who has turned raw skills into the complete package while becoming one of the better overall hitters in the American League East.
It wasn’t always this way. The sixth-year slugger out of the Dominican Republic showed glimpses of success before, like in 2017 when he slugged eight home runs as a September call-up, or the following April when he slugged four more with a Vladimir Guerrero Jr.-esque 1.054 on-base plus slugging percentage.
The issue was that he never seemed capable of putting everything together for a full season. After a hot debut to 2018, his pace slowed. The following year, he had to be sent down to the minors. Despite the obvious talent, nobody ever knew what to expect from one month to the next.
Hernández’s streaky nature appeared to change during the 2020 abbreviated season when he was the Jays’ top hitter with a .289/.340/.579 slash line. But those impressive numbers had to be taken with a grain of salt because they came across just 50 games.
The question of whether it could be sustained over 162 remained unanswered. Then came 2021, and Hernandez put together an all-star season while hitting .296 with 32 homers and 116 RBIs. The skeptics were silenced. Hernández is now viewed as a bona fide run producer in one of the league’s top lineups.
“It’s a huge difference between now and three years ago, and now I have more experience,” Hernández said before going 0-for-3 in the Jays’ 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday afternoon. “I’ve got more and more confidence at the plate, and I just try to keep my mind strong and go out there with a plan, stay with it and see the results.”
Hernández has spent a lot of time over the last few seasons talking about his approach. One year he would feel like he was being too aggressive, the next he was too passive. His instinct was to be a free swinger and trying to resist that urge made him overly tentative. The plan seemed to changed every other week.
Plate discipline was a big part of that but it rarely gets mentioned these days, and not for the reasons one might think. Hernández isn’t swinging less, he’s swinging more. According to Statcast, the 29-year-old swung at 34.3 per cent of pitches outside the zone each of the last two seasons, which is up from 31.4 per cent and 32.2 per cent in his first two years with the Jays.
The same thing happened on pitches inside the zone. In 2021, Hernández swung at 77 per cent of those offerings, the highest mark of his career. An overall swing percentage of 51.9 per cent — on pitches inside and outside the zone — was a career high, too.
So how does one explain the career-high .346 on-base percentage in 2021? Well, this isn’t a story about a guy who suddenly developed Jose Bautista’s eye at the plate, working deep counts every time he stepped into the box. Instead, it’s the story of a guy who has embraced his aggressiveness, but in a way where he still has a clear plan of attack.
If Hernández gets the pitch he’s looking for, in an area he’s expecting it, he doesn’t often miss. His zone contact, which indicates the number of times he makes contact on pitches inside the zone, was a career high 81.8 per cent last season, according to Fangraphs.
“I mean, putting up numbers like that, my confidence would be high, too,” Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said of Hernández’s increased ability at the plate. “When he won the Silver Slugger, I remember reading the numbers and going, ‘Oh my God, this guy has numbers.’ When you’re talking about Mike Trout and guys like that, he has numbers like that. He has been amazing since 2019.”
Hernández is once again projected to be the Jays’ cleanup man, where he’ll offer a bit of protection to Guerrero. For the teams that don’t want to mess around with the potential MVP, they’ll have a slugging all-star to deal with instead. After last year’s success, the game plan hasn’t changed one bit.
“I’m just trying to keep my mind strong. I tried to do the same work, getting my body ready for 162 games … competing with my teammates and trying to win ball games,” Hernández said.
Like any player, Hernández will still go through some ups and downs in 2022. One week he’ll look like one of the best hitters in the game, the next it will look like he can’t hit a beach ball. That’s how this sport works, even for the great ones.
But what Hernández has been able to do over the last two years is increase the peaks and limit the valleys. That’s how you go from a guy who lost the confidence of the coaching staff, to the point of needing to be sent to the minors, to a guy who will be in the lineup every day.
The expectation from the Jays is more of the same. The guy who used to be a wild card is now an integral part of the offence and one of the primary reasons this team is so bullish on its chances at competing for a World Series title.