It’s incredibly difficult to choose the best story from a Blue Jays regular season that has surpassed every expectation and has ended in a playoff berth.
There are so many to choose from, but undoubtedly one of the many contenders is Teoscar Hernandez’s breakout performance at the plate. He’s gone from being 2% better than the league average hitter in 2019 according to wRC+, to 46% better in 2020. That’s a massive increase.
How has he done it? To sum it up quickly, he’s made better contact. He was already a Statcast darling prior to 2020, with an 92nd percentile exit velocity and 97th percentile Barrel % in 2018, and 86th and 82nd percentiles respectively on those statistics in 2019. In the pandemic-shortened 2020, he’s at 97th and 99th. What that looks like in terms of actual data is this:
Those increases might look small, but when you’re already at the top of the class, slight changes like those go a huge way to increasing production. Better contact has allowed his BABIP to soar as well, going from .313 in 2018 and .293 in 2019, to .348 in 2020.
That number is obviously quite a bit higher than the .300 baseline we tend to assume hitters will stay at during prolonged periods of play, but harder hit balls do tend to fall more often than softer hit ones, so an elevated BABIP should be expected for a player of Hernandez’s calibre. We might expect to see some regression in that regard, but his career BABIP stands at .310 right now, so it isn’t like he hasn’t had that type of number before.
I don’t know how exactly Hernandez has all of a sudden took a step up in terms of contact. It isn’t even like his pitch selection has gotten any better. He has actually swung at pitches outside the zone more often this year than in any previous year of his career, and has swung at pitches inside the zone less often than he has in any other season. It’s just that when he is making contact – and his contact percentages are all within one percentage point of his career averages this season – it’s being done much harder than it has in the past.
And that last point is exactly why we can actually expect more from Teoscar than he is currently producing.
This breakout has been fueled purely from better contact. His pitch selection has not improved. There’s an argument to be made that it actually has gotten worse. He is walking less this year (6.8%) than he has in every other full season in his career. His K% is down from its high of 33.0% last season, but only to 30.4%, 14th percentile among hitters, compared to 2nd percentile a year ago. He has still been swinging and missing a lot, whiffing at a rate that is only in the 9th percentile, up from his 5th percentile rank last season. So we can’t actually say any of this improvement that has shown up in the numbers this year has been due to increased plate discipline. He’s succeeded in spite of his tendencies at the plate, not because of them.
What he is doing now is great, but it is not sustainable. Here’s a list of qualified player seasons over the past three years to have a K% over 30% and a wOBA over .330:
- Teoscar Hernandez 2020 – 30.4 K%, .378 wOBA
- Willy Adames 2020 – 36.1 K%, .341 wOBA
- Christian Yelich 2020 – 31.3 K%, .334 wOBA
- Joey Gallo 2018 – 35.9 K%, .343 wOBA
That’s it. It’s incredibly hard to sustain elite-level production while striking out more than 30% of the time. In a full 162 game season, it just isn’t done often, and to expect Teoscar to do it is unrealistic.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t be an elite hitter. He has the exit velocity to match up with any hitter in the world right now. We know that when he makes contact with the ball, it goes far. It’s the times he doesn’t make contact which he needs to now improve upon. He has accomplished the first evolution needed in order to become a great hitter. Now he needs the second one. When we expand the qualifications of the list above to just a 27.0 K%, the list becomes much longer. 11 batters in 2020, 6 in 2019, and 5 in 2018. Still difficult, but more plausible to expect. Make it 25.0%, and the numbers are 19, 20, and 13 in the past three years, respectively – well within reach.
All this is to say that with only small reductions in his K%, Teoscar can maintain the numbers he has put up this year, if not improve upon them. We know it can be done, because he himself has decreased his K% by almost three percentage points this year, and he has a full list of teammates who have done similar things. Cavan Biggio has gone from 28.6% in 2019 to 23.1% in 2020. Travis Shaw from 33.0% to 28.4%. Randal Grichuk from 26.0% to 21.1%. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. from 25.1% to 21.8%. Most astonishing, Rowdy Tellez has gone from 28.4% to 15.7%.
Those are all huge decreases. Whatever the coaching mentality has been this year, from Dante Bichette or any other member of the staff, it has had some impact on these guys, and their approaches have improved dramatically. Is it so unreasonable to believe that it will continue to work into next year, and bring Teoscar’s number down even further? I don’t think it is at all.
Teoscar has always possessed an incredible ability to make hard contact. This year, he’s levelled up on that ability and has become one of the star hitters in the game solely on that fact. But there is still so much more. A modest decrease in his free-swinging ways could lead him to an even better performance, and vault him into the company of the most feared batters in baseball. How that will happen is anybody’s guess, but despite his gigantic leap forward this year, there is still room for improvement, and that’s exciting.