Entering the 2021 season, it seemed like the best part of the Teoscar Hernandez story had already been written.
After the toolsy outfielder had struggled to find consistency over the beginning of his Toronto Blue Jays tenure -- culminating in a demotion to Triple-A just over two years ago -- he found his groove and hit .265/.331/.560 with 39 home runs in 139 games after he returned across the back half of 2019 and the truncated 2020. The Blue Jays’ patience with him paid off and he rewarded them by becoming a feared middle-of-the-order hitter.
That’s a good story, but at the age of 28 Hernandez may be penning a new, unexpected chapter.
With Vladimir Guerrero Jr. putting up the best offensive numbers in the majors, and Marcus Semien performing as the league’s hottest hitter in May -- plus a series of gut-wrenching late-game defeats -- the significance of Hernandez’s start has been easy to miss. However, the outfielder deserves some credit for the .320/.375/.520 line he’s produced, and particularly the .354/.421/.583 he’s hit since returning from the COVID-19 IL on April 30.
It’s not unusual for a hitter, especially one of Hernandez’s quality, to put together an exceedingly productive stretch, but these 24 games have been remarkable in the context of his career. Not only is he putting up big numbers, but he’s also cutting down on his strikeouts in a profound way.
Since April 30, Hernandez’s K rate of 15 per cent is less than half of his career number (30.8 per cent) and significantly lower than the best 24-game stretch he’s posted in any other season (20.2 per cent in 2018.)
The easy explanation for this drop in strikeout rate is that Hernandez is making much more contact than he’s usually managed. In this 24-game span his contact rate of 76.6 is well above his career average heading into this stretch of 66.4 per cent -- and the best he’s managed in such a period. Not only does that help him stay alive with two strikes (he’s whiffed on 15.3 per cent of two-strike pitches as opposed to his prior career average of 20.4), it also prevents counts from reaching two strikes because he’s putting the ball in play. Before this span 31.4 per cent of the pitches Hernandez saw came with two strikes but during it that number sits at 23.2.
While that information provides some context, it doesn’t get to the shape of that improvement. If we look at the situation by pitch type, it’s clear that the fastballs are the area where his recent contact rate is most impressive.
That improvement applies to both pitches in the zone and particularly high heaters:
In the past we’ve seen Hernandez wave at high heaters like this…
… but if we look at the pitches he’s swung and missed at during his recent hot streak, it’s an area he hasn’t been vulnerable at all:
The other thing this picture illustrates, which might be more instructive, is a lack of misses on pitches over the plate. Since Hernandez’s April return, his zone contact rate of 87.3 per cent ranks 58th among 155 qualified hitters, a well-above-average mark that ties the red-hot Semien. For reference, even during his outstanding 2020 season his 76.9 per cent mark ranked 127th among 142 qualifiers. Unsurprisingly, this is also his finest 24-game period by zone contact:
It’s hard to say with too much confidence how Hernandez is making so much more contact than he usually does. While he’s done a good job of staying out of unfavourable counts, handling pitches that have given him trouble in the past -- like high heaters and backfoot breaking balls -- and making pitchers pay on fastballs in the zone, the stickiness of those improvements is anyone’s guess. There isn’t a smoking gun to explain his improvement in terms of a radically changed stance, swing or approach. He’s just executing on a level that’s unprecedented for him.
When it’s all said and done, this stretch could go on to represent a total blip or the start of a paradigm shift for the slugger. When it comes to a stretch of this length it's always safer to bet on the former, but strikeout rate and contact rates don’t need huge samples to be meaningful -- and Hernandez has shown the capacity for serious growth.
Very few hitters in the game can match his raw power when he makes contact, and if he’s able to put the ball in play even a little bit more, the production level Hernandez established in 2020 won’t be his ceiling after all.