Yadiel hitting lefties in fight for right to stay

September 8th, 2021

ATLANTA -- It’s been an unusual stretch run for the Nationals, a team that’s used to fighting for postseason berths at this time of year. There’s still plenty to play for, though, especially for those players whose futures may not be completely settled.

One such player is , the left-handed-hitting outfielder whose performance profile looks like that of a righty. And the second-year outfielder certainly helped his case on Tuesday night.

Hernandez’s three-run home run capped a four-run seventh-inning rally that tied the game, but the good feelings were short-lived as Ozzie Albies’ two-run homer in the home half of the frame sent Washington to an 8-5 loss at Truist Park.

Hernandez’s homer off of Tyler Matzek was his second extra-base hit of the game and his first long ball since Aug. 25. He had been 4-for-31 since that night, entering Tuesday’s game.

Perhaps it’s no surprise he had a good night. He strode to the plate four times, and four times he faced a left-hander. For many left-handed hitters, that means a rough night or even a night on the bench. For Hernandez, even against tough lefties like starter Max Fried and Matzek, it’s showtime.

“I’ve never had an issue against left-handers,” Hernandez said through an interpreter. “I don't know why. Maybe it’s because I stay back so well and wait for the pitch to get real deep. I see it very well from both sides. I really can’t tell you the exact reason why. But I have always done well against left-handers.”

The numbers bear that out. Hernandez entered Tuesday with a .293/.359/.534 career Major League line against lefties, versus .255/.305/.385 against right-handers. He showed a similar pattern in Triple-A this year, and no real split to speak of in the Minors in 2019. He’s not just competitive against lefties. He’s better against them. Even a lefty like Matzek, who throws gas.

“He hits the ball really well and he takes good at-bats,” said Fried, who surrendered a double to Hernandez. “To be honest, Matzek has one of the best fastballs, especially from the left side, that I've seen."

That’s not the only thing about Hernandez that could convince you he’s a right-hander in disguise. So far in the Major Leagues, his power has been to left field -- the pull field for a righty, the opposite field for a lefty. Seven of his eight home runs this year have gone to left field.

“Ever since I picked up a bat and played baseball,” he said, “for some reason I’ve been able to hit with power the opposite way.”

It was knowing all this that the Braves let Hernandez take his hacks against Matzek in the seventh. Lane Thomas started the rally with a walk, followed by singles from Alcides Escobar and Juan Soto (the latter reaching base five times on the evening). A pair of flyouts brought up Hernandez with two outs.

Matzek started Hernandez off with a 95 mph fastball at the top of the zone -- maybe even out of it -- and Hernandez jumped it, driving it 395 feet to left field for his eighth home run of the season. It was his fourth home run in 61 plate appearances against lefties this season, compared to four in 156 PAs against right-handers.

The question now is, where does a player like that fit in the Nats’ evolving future? Washington made some major trades for prospects at the Trade Deadline, but several of those prospects are already in the Major Leagues. This is, moreover, an organization that is rarely hesitant to spend money.

If this is a rebuild, it may not be a long, slow one. Just because you’re here now doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a spot for next year. Hernandez knows that, and nights like Tuesday can only help.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I have my goals set to finish strong and hopefully open some eyes and make sure that they know what I can do for next season.”