TORONTO — Okay, we have to talk about Teoscar Hernandez.
He collected four hits Wednesday in a 15-5 Toronto Blue Jays victory, including an absolute cruiser of a home run off Kansas City Royals starter Ian Kennedy, who tried to sneak a 2-1 fastball by Hernandez and instead surrendered a 426-foot blast.
Estimated landing spot: Outer space.pic.twitter.com/ICAcLiK6aK
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) April 18, 2018
Recalled from triple-A Buffalo less than a week ago, Hernandez is now 8-for-19 with five extra-base hits over four games. He’s also drawn a walk and stolen a base, because, why not?
“When I got the call, I put in my mind that it meant you get another chance—to do what you know, and to try your best. To try to do things to keep getting better,” Hernandez said. “Every time I get a chance, I just try to do my best and try to do some damage.”
Of course, a lot of Blue Jays fans will tell you this should have been happening from opening day. Hernandez had the best spring training of any Blue Jay but Kevin Pillar, batting .358/.386/.698 over 57 plate appearances with four homers and four doubles. He did absolutely everything he could to make the team.
Really, since he was acquired from the Houston Astros for Francisco Liriano at the 2017 trade deadline, all he’s done is rake. After joining the Blue Jays as a September call-up, Hernandez hit eight home runs in only 26 games, putting up a .908 OPS. His .341 isolated power was the eight-highest of any major-league hitter that month.
And yet, come opening day, two things stood in Hernandez’s way.
The first was that the Blue Jays were well-covered with major-league outfielders, entering the season with Curtis Granderson and Steve Pearce forming a platoon in left, Pillar ensconced in centre, and new addition Randal Grichuk earmarked for every-day plate appearances in right. The Blue Jays wanted Hernandez getting as much playing time as possible, and that playing time simply wasn’t available in the majors.
The other was Hernandez’s plate discipline. For the many times he connected and sent baseballs screaming in the opposite direction at very high rates of speed, Hernandez swung-and-missed an awful lot, too.
His 37.9 per cent strikeout rate last September was the second-highest in baseball after Chris Davis. His 16.6 per cent swinging strike rate was ninth. His .305 on-base percentage was 126 out of 164 qualified hitters. This spring, his strikeout rate was 30 per cent. Clearly, Hernandez needed to refine his approach.
And, in Grichuk, the Blue Jays already had a player just like Hernandez on their major-league roster. Grichuk hits plenty of home runs, strikes out a lot, posts below-average on-base percentages, and provides solid outfield defence. The two right-handed hitters are remarkably similar. The key difference is the 25-year-old Hernandez had minor-league options remaining—the 26-year-old Grichuk didn’t.
And so, Grichuk started the season in right field for the Blue Jays while Hernandez went to triple-A Buffalo to work on his game. But, here we are about three weeks later, and it’s like the end of spring training all over again.
Kendrys Morales, out since April 9 with a right hamstring strain, is eligible to return from the disabled list Friday. The designated hitter has been running without issue in recent days and on Wednesday afternoon Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said he expects the 34-year-old to rejoin the Blue Jays for the weekend.
Morales’s return presents a serious impediment to Hernandez’s major-league playing time. The Blue Jays have the same four outfielders they broke camp with, and don’t want Hernandez rotting on the bench when he could be getting regular playing time in triple-A. Grichuk still doesn’t have a minor-league option, and, despite starting the year in an epic 5-for-52 slump, isn’t going anywhere.
Meanwhile, Hernandez is once again doing absolutely everything he can to stay in the majors. None of his four hits Wednesday were cheap. His first-inning single came off the bat at 109 mph; his third-inning homer was 111 mph; his sixth-inning single was 103 mph; his seventh-inning triple was 112 mph. Each of them had a hit probability of 61 per cent of higher.
He’s still striking out a lot, with five over his four games, including one Wednesday on three pitches. But when he’s not, he’s absolutely lighting pitchers up.
“I don’t think he could play any better, right?” Gibbons said after Wednesday’s game. “It’s not going to be an easy decision, whatever we choose to do. But we’ll have to make one.”
Another option would be for the Blue Jays to keep Hernandez around when Morales returns, instead demoting left-hander Tim Mayza from the club’s eight-man bullpen. That would likely require Morales to spend significant time on the bench if Hernandez is going to play regularly.
Considering Morales was a below-average offensive contributor in 2017, some fans may not see that as an issue. But his track record suggests he’s better than the 94 OPS+ he put up last season, and the Blue Jays aren’t playing Morales $11 million to be a bench player. The club also wants Grichuk getting regular plate appearances as he appears to just now be coming out of his extended slump. And Granderson, Pearce, and Pillar are all hitting well and deserving of regular playing time themselves.
This is the kind of thing a team stuffs into its problems file—sub-heading: good. Having too many capable outfielders is not something to complain about. The most likely scenario will see Hernandez on his way back to triple-A when Morales is eligible to return, unless someone gets hurt or the club’s thinking changes between now and then. But, considering how prolific Hernandez has been in his very small major-league samples last September and this April, no one can blame fans for wanting him to stay.
Asked what advice he’d give a player in Hernandez’s position, Granderson preached focus and preparedness.
“The biggest thing is don’t think about it,” Granderson said, after going 2-for-4 Wednesday with two walks and a grand slam. “Just come to the ballpark day in and day out ready to play. And understand that certain things happen that are out of your control, that may not be the things that you like.
“Regardless of where it happens to be—whether it’s up here, whether it’s starting, not stating, or if it happens to be in the minor leagues—you’ve got to come in ready to play and try to find a way to get better and better each day.”
Hernandez has certainly been doing that. It’s caught the attention of J.A. Happ, who started Wednesday’s game, allowing four runs over six innings while striking out eight. Hernandez impressed Happ with his positive mindset and work ethic when he was up late last season. The last four games have been no different.
“He’s doing what he should do—he’s controlling what he can control. That’s the only way,” Happ said. “Obviously, he’s playing well. That makes it tough on the decision-makers for sure. That’s what you can do when you’re a player in that position. And he’s doing the right things, that’s for sure.”
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays won their fourth consecutive game Wednesday in an absolute laugher, sweeping the lowly Royals out of town to move to 12-5. This is exactly what the club needs to be doing if it hopes to contend this season. Beat up on the American League’s bad teams, while splitting games against its best.
After achieving the former with a 37-hit, 31-run outburst over three games against Kansas City pitching, the next opportunity to do the latter has arrived, as the Blue Jays begin a four-game series at Yankee Stadium Thursday. Toronto split a four-gamer against New York to open the season at Rogers Centre three weeks ago, dropping the first pair before feasting against some abnormally poor Yankees relief pitching for come-from-behind victories in the next two.
Will the Blue Jays achieve similar results this weekend? We’ll see. For most fans, the more pertinent question is whether or not Hernandez will be a part of it.