Added patience has Teoscar ready for big '21
TAMPA, Fla. -- Two years ago, Teoscar Hernández looked like another outfielder who couldn’t put his tools together.
Through the first 39 games of the 2019 season, Hernández was hitting .189 and, as the Blue Jays were ramping up their rebuild around their young core, it looked like he’d be lost in the shuffle entirely.
The Blue Jays demoted Hernández to Triple-A Buffalo, where something changed.
Hernández returned with a new plan at the plate, which is an easy first step, but the 28-year-old has been able to sustain that and develop it into an engrained routine. Back in the big leagues later that season, Hernandez launched 23 home runs with an .873 OPS over his final 86 games, and he carried that right into his breakout 2020, when he posted a .919 OPS and won his first Silver Slugger Award.
A left oblique strain landed Hernández on the IL in September, but just prior to that injury, the slugger felt he was about to take the next step.
“My at-bats were different," Hernández said. "I was feeling like I was on every pitch. I was seeing the ball better than ever."
A career resurrection like this is never simple, but at the core of it all for Hernández is a little added patience.
“Before, I swung a lot. Last year, my swing was still hot, but I took a lot of pitches,” Hernández explained. “That was a change. I was putting a lot of effort into trying to take more pitches than I usually take and trying to look for one spot in the strike zone, then try to stay with it. I think that was the change that made me better.”
Hernández swung at far fewer first pitches in 2020, but it’s important to be more precise than that to understand his breakout season. Hernández also swung at fewer pitches in the strike zone in 2020, with his 62.9 percent Zone Swing % down from 72.3 percent in '19 and 72.1 percent in '18.
This seems counterintuitive to a big season at the plate, but Hernández was no longer just looking for strikes. He was looking for his pitch in his spot in his count, and not stretching outside his comfort zone for anything else.
Hernández already had the physical tools he needed. He’s one of the best athletes on the Blue Jays’ roster, regularly putting on a show in batting practice with his raw power, and is also one of the fastest players in the organization. The key to this next step, then, was mental.
“I never realized the things that I had. My skills,” Hernández said, “I never trusted them. I had some people who helped me in thinking that I’m a good player and I have a lot of skills. I just didn’t realize it, at that point, that I could do all of the things I did last year. [Hitting coach] Guillermo [Martinez] helped me a lot. Dante [Bichette] helped me a lot. For me, now, everything is about trust.”
In 2021, there’s no secret to be unlocked for Hernández. He knows who he is as a player, and even as the Blue Jays juggle a complicated outfield picture with four players and three spots, the right fielder isn’t worried about playing time issues.
He shouldn't be. This is a bat capable of leading one of baseball’s best lineups in home runs and OPS.
The DH spot is a potential solution to this logjam for the Blue Jays, but that’s a different conversation depending on each player. From the outside looking in, it might look like a DH has an easy job, but that’s miles from the truth. Staying physically and mentally engaged without playing defense is a significant challenge, so you’ll often see veteran DHs taking swings in the tunnel or running sprints to keep their body engaged.
Across Hernández’s career, there’s not much of a sample size to work with at DH. He’s taken 48 at-bats as a DH and hit .188 with a .674 OPS.
“Honestly, I don’t like it, but if this is the case and I’m going to hit a lot as a DH, I have to figure it out and try to produce for my team and for myself,” Hernández said.
That creates a new challenge within this outfield picture, as having Randal Grichuk in right field gives the Blue Jays their best defensive outfield. Regardless of what this Blue Jays lineup looks like, though, Hernández’s bat needs to be in it. We’re a long way from 2019.