Is this the secret star of Blue Jays core?

Hernández is flexing his tape-measure power -- can he keep it up?

August 21st, 2020

The Blue Jays are stacked with slugging stars of tomorrow, but is it time to think of as a centerpiece of that long-term future?

Hernández has been as productive as any Blue Jay to begin 2020, and he’ll be asked to carry even more of the load while shortstop Bo Bichette recuperates from a knee strain. Entering Friday, Hernández ranked among the AL’s top 10 hitters with eight home runs, 13 extra-base hits, 55 total bases and a .611 slugging percentage. Through 23 games, Hernández had already accumulated 75% of his 2019 WAR total, per FanGraphs.

Hernández has made his presence felt in the highlight reels, too. Last Wednesday saw Hernández flash a 115.9-mph exit velocity on his 466-foot blast in Buffalo, putting him within the top five on both the velocity and distance home run leaderboards for 2020. And last Friday, Hernández went to an even deeper part of the park on a 110.8-mph, 459-foot tater against the Rays. That 115.9-mph rocket is the hardest homer struck by any Blue Jays hitter since Statcast began tracking in 2015, and Hernández is one of three players, alongside Miguel Sanó and Fernando Tatis Jr., with at least four 110-plus mph dingers this year.

Hernández has as much raw power as any Blue Jay, but this isn’t the first time he’s tantalized with that tool. He topped this author’s list of breakout candidates for 2018 based on an incredible first September with Toronto, and then struck out 163 times and struggled to a .771 OPS that season. Last May, Hernández was swinging so poorly (.189 BA, 42 strikeouts in his first 127 at-bats) that Toronto briefly demoted him to Triple-A. To put it succinctly, Hernández’s big league tenure has been a roller coaster.

The last series of upward spikes in the above graph, however, hint at what makes Hernández worth watching right now. Yes, he’s been scorching in a 20-game sample, but this streak actually goes back further than that. Since MLB resumed play after last year’s All-Star break, only 10 qualified hitters have a higher slugging percentage than Hernández, and only 21 hitters have put up a higher wRC+.

That’s half a season’s worth of games in which Hernández has been a top-25 hitter in baseball, marking his longest run of consistency so far. But can he really keep up this kind of production? It hasn’t been conventional, but Hernández is making adjustments that are working for him so far.

He’s hunting what he can handle

Hernández’s strikeouts haven’t gone away, and he’s actually whiffing just as much pitch by pitch as compared to 2018-19. His walk rate is also sixth-lowest among qualified hitters. But Hernández is giving himself more chances by spitting on the pitch that’s peppered all over his scouting report. Few right-handed hitters have seen more sliders down-and-away over the last three years, including with two strikes in the count, and it’s not hard to see why: in 59 at-bats against sliders in that location, Hernández has mustered only five hits (.085) and struck out 39 times.

There’s no reason why pitchers wouldn’t keep pounding Hernández with those down-and-away sliders until he shows he can handle it. But, for now, he’s laying off, swinging only three times at that pitch to begin 2020. Overall, Hernández is offering much less at breaking balls -- as his career .204 average against breakers suggests he should -- and saving his hacks for the heaters he’s always loved. Hernández has slugged .564 against fastballs over the last four seasons, and is up to .902 against them this summer, the second-highest fastball slugging percentage behind JaCoby Jones.

Every hitter would love to save their swings for fastballs, of course, but that’s not how the Major Leagues work. And recent history says it will be tough for Hernández, who’s currently hitting just .154 against non-fastballs, to keep this going. Between 2017-19, only nine other players (Matt Carpenter, Mitch Garver, Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, Matt Kemp, Max Muncy, Aaron Judge, Joc Pederson and Miguel Sanó) put up a 120 OPS+ or higher while hitting under .200 against secondary pitches in a season.

When he connects, it's loud

You better not miss your fastball opportunities when you’re a hitter who struggles against the offspeed offerings -- especially if you’re also not drawing walks -- and so far, Hernández hasn’t: All eight of his homers (and 20 of his 26 hits) have come off four-seamers, sinkers or cutters.

Everything about Hernández’s game hinges on giving himself enough opportunities to drive his favorite pitches; when he does, few sluggers in baseball are more dangerous. Out of the nearly 250 players who have totaled at least 500 balls in play since Hernández debuted with the Blue Jays in September 2017, only eight have barreled balls (the best kind of contact) at a higher rate. Hernández has roughly the same hard-hit rate in that span as Mike Trout, and his expected slugging on balls in play -- again, based on those exit-velocity and launch-angle combos -- is nearly identical to Christian Yelich.

The Blue Jays have loved Hernández for this very reason since they acquired him from the Astros via trade three years ago. He’s shown more consistent raw power than Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or any of Toronto’s prospect jewels, but unfortunately that’s only been half of his story as a hitter. If Hernández can keep bringing pitchers back toward the heart of the strike zone and bash his opportunities, maybe he really can stay hot. The pool of high-whiff, fastball-dominant sluggers who succeed for years in a row is just so, so small.

OK, but where does he play?

What’s even more tantalizing about Hernández is that power isn’t his only tool in the box. He’s never ranked below the 84th percentile of qualified players in average sprint speed, and he owns an above-average arm. Hernández routinely fires outfield throws of 92 mph or higher -- including a 92.3-mph throw home to finish off a double play on Wednesday.

But those skills haven’t translated to the outfield, where balls hit Hernández’s way too often turn into adventures. He has been a below-average defender by Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) metric in each of his first three years in Toronto, and he already made one very costly blunder this year, when his error on Sunday helped the Rays tie and then beat the Blue Jays in extra innings.

Hernández’s speed hasn’t translated to stolen bases, either, making him a one-dimensional player on a club that arguably has too many as it is. Hernández makes the most sense as a designated hitter, but the Blue Jays already have a DH logjam with both Rowdy Tellez and Guerrero (when Vlad isn’t manning first base).

If Hernández keeps slugging like he has so far, manager Charlie Montoyo will find him at-bats. But if the Blue Jays see an opportunity to upgrade other holes by trading their long-loved project, they might discover a sizable list of suitors. Hernández is still only 27, and is eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter. And right now, he’s showing what he can do when he taps into his world-class power.