If you wanted to write a fairy tale beginning to baseball player’s career, you’d be hard pressed to invent a better one than what Blue Jays fans have been witnessing this month with Teoscar Hernandez. There are some rather rich threads running through his story and recent Blue Jays history.
Eight years ago this month, out of nowhere and just after the club had given up on former All-Star right fielder Alex Rios, José Bautista earned himself a shot at making the position his the following spring, belting 10 home runs in the month of September. He’d never look back, firmly holding the position until the very end of this season, as it has become painfully clear that his best days are well behind him. Bautista’s contract is up. According to the Baseball Reference version of WAR, he’s been nearly two wins below replacement level. The Blue Jays need a new right fielder. And, suddenly, along comes Hernandez. Another youngster from the Dominican Republic, blasting his way through the month of September — not to mention Blue Jays fans’ hearts, and the club’s future plans.
The torch, it seems, has been passed. After all, like the below tweet says, I don’t see a lot of mirages on this list:
— Chris Black (@ByChrisBlack) September 27, 2017
But, of course, declaring what Hernandez has done so far “not a mirage” is hardly so simple.
If I had to devise a quick narrative from his stat line, I’d say that it looks like Hernandez has been especially aggressive since coming over to the Jays organization from Houston. And why shouldn’t he have been? The ball has been flying off his bat. Between Buffalo and Toronto, he now has 13 home runs in just 187 plate appearances — a 42 home run pace over the course of a 600 PA season. Through his first 78 plate appearances of his Blue Jays career, Hernandez has produced an outstanding 142 wRC+.
But, of course, that’s almost all from the home runs. He’s also struck out in a full third of his plate appearances in the big leagues this year, produced a swinging strikeout rate of 16.1% (only three qualified hitters, Joey Gallo, Javier Baez, and Avisail Garcia, have a rate as high this year), and walked just 5.1% of the time. If the home run pace continues he might be able to get by with numbers like that. But to think home runs will keep coming like this, you have to believe that Teoscar is truly an elite slugger. His home run per flyball rate right now is over 30%. That’s not quite unprecedented, but it’s a rate that only Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, among qualified batters in 2017, are topping — and one that only 13 hitters, those two included, have surpassed since the year 2000.
Teoscar has some pop, to be sure, but quite clearly that there is no way he’s going to continue hitting home runs like this. That’s the bad news. The good news, though, is that the walk and strikeout rates we’re seeing from him don’t necessarily reflect what he is as a player either.
To better understand what to expect from him in the long run we need to look a little bit at his history.
Hernandez had a disappointing 2015 season at Double-A, slashing just .219/.275/.362 over 514 plate appearances, walking just 6.4% of the time and striking out at a 24.5% rate — similar rates to what we’ve seen from the aggressive Blue Jays version of Teoscar. Added together with his brief turn at the level the season before and by the end of 2015 Hernandez had struck out 162 times in 612 PA as a Double-A player (a 26.5% rate) and had a sub-.300 on-base percentage. He’d done nothing to show that he was ready to move up a level, and it looked like he might be stalling out as a prospect. This would have been a little bit surprising, because of how well he’d handled High-A the year before. In 2014 with the Lancaster JetHawks of the California League, Hernandez still showed too much propensity to strike out — his rate was 25.7% over 455 plate appearances — but had a great year at the plate otherwise. He slahsed .294/.376/.550 (albeit in a good offensive environment, as Josh Howsam points out), walked 10.8% of the time, hit 17 home runs, and stole 31 bases.
After being left exposed in the Rule 5 draft (and not being selected), he reestablished himself in 2016. Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle explained how on the occasion of Hernandez’s big league debut that August:
A refined approach at the plate helped Hernandez, 23, boost his stock. A winter of playing for Toros del Este in his native Dominican Republic marked a turning point, he said. Ever since, he has chased fewer pitches outside the strike zone. The results are evident.
Hernandez chopped his strikeout percentage from 24.5 percent in 2015 to 16.6 percent this season en route to Friday’s big league debut.
In 2016, Teoscar was a different player than he’s been so far as a Blue Jay. At the start of 2017 he was, too. He posted a 9.9% walk rate and a 17.1% strikeout rate in his 2016 stint at Double-A. At Triple-A that year it was a 15.6% strikeout rate and a 8.1% walk rate. And in 2017 with the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate he walked in 11.2% of his plate appearances, and though his strikeout rate crept up to 20.7%, he slashed an impressive .279/.369/.485.
That’s probably more the kind of player Hernandez realistically needs to be to be especially useful as an everyday player for the Jays — particularly in right field. (If he were in centre, should the opportunity arise and his glove be passable enough there, the bar might be low enough that the more home-run-reliant Teoscar might work). Or, at least, you’d hope he can be that kind of guy, because a whole bunch of the power we’re seeing now is surely going to be sacrificed anyway.
Can he be that guy? I think the jury is still pretty clearly out. There’s no sense now in him trying to do anything other than what he’s been doing, seeing as he keeps launching balls over the fence, but if his contact skills don’t improve, these heady days aren’t going to end up meaning a whole lot. “Negative’ Nick Ashbourne noted this week at Yahoo! Sports that “of the 470 hitters who’ve come to the plate this year, Hernandez’s contact rate of 70.5 percent ranks 405th,” and “more troublingly” that “he’s had serious issues with swinging through pitches in the zone where his contact rate of 75 percent ranks 450th in the same group.”
Nick also notes that, with Teoscar turning 25 next month — “Bryce Harper is one day younger than Hernandez, Mookie Betts is just eight days older, Xander Bogaerts is two weeks his elder,” he tells us — it’s maybe not realistic to expect a whole lot more growth from the youngster, either.
It seems clear, I think, that nothing yet is clear. There will be ups, there will be downs, there will — as John Sickels of Minor League Ball made abundantly clear in a piece on Teoscar earlier this season — there will be inconsistency yet. He’s not this. He’s not nothing. And the only way I think we’re going to find out is with real, full, multi-year run at the big leagues.
I’m not sure that’s necessarily going to start as soon as next spring. I’m not sure that the Jays won’t still try to find an established outfielder on a short deal and hold Teoscar as depth or make him force his way onto the team with his performance in Buffalo. But I can live with that!
I think we all should be pretty alright living with that.