Chris Black is a producer for Toronto Blue Jays broadcasts on Sportsnet.
Teoscar Hernandez has just finished an off-season workout in Maimon, Dominican Republic, when he puts forth a blunt assessment of his plate discipline.
“I’m not patient at the plate,” he acknowledges. “Everyone knows I like to swing. That’s who I am.”
Even so, he says his 2020 season proved to him he can thrive at the major-league level even with some of that impatience. However, there’s one clear distinction compared to his first few years in Major League Baseball.
“Every time that I went to home plate, I went up with a plan,” Hernandez says during an in-depth interview with Sportsnet during his Spring Training preparation. “When you go up without a plan, that’s when you end up with bad swings and you mess up.”
Hernandez’s newfound level of play since June 2019—a 136-game span where he ranks among the top 10 in baseball in home runs (39) and average exit velocity—is even more impressive when you realize where he was just before it all started. The path from Houston to Toronto to the minor leagues and back has been filled with adjustments for the 28-year old – and there’s a good chance his work on that front is just getting started.
“I lost my confidence in 2018 and (the start of 2019) was not a good time in the big leagues for me. I’m not going to tell you it didn’t suck.”
Years from now, we might look back at a four-strikeout game on a getaway day in San Francisco as the turning point of an all-star career. It was May 15, 2019, Hernandez never put a ball in play, and he was demoted to Triple-A Buffalo the next day.
“I can’t even remember how I felt,” Hernandez says of his day at the plate in San Francisco. “I don’t want to remember how I felt. I can tell you this: the difference (between then and now) is here and to the moon.”
Just three weeks following his demotion, Hernandez returned to Toronto with altered swing mechanics. As Shi Davidi reported in June of 2019, and as you can see in the split screen below, Hernandez switched from a leg kick to a quicker toe tap, and lowered his hands in his initial setup (though there were times in 2020 when the leg kick returned). The end result was a quieter pre-swing routine—from his bat to his hands to his lower half—and the change seemingly got his swing fired up a split-second sooner.
That split-second can be the difference between squaring up a good fastball or fouling it off, and it can also be the difference between identifying a breaking ball or realizing what’s coming too late. As Hernandez alluded to when speaking to Davidi, recognizing breaking pitches was important to his success. Once he returned to the majors, that pitch recognition started paying off.
"If you don’t have the rhythm, you don’t have your approach, you don’t have your timing, you don’t have anything," Hernandez explained to Davidi. "You’re always going to feel late for pitches, you’re not going to see any spin on it. That was the key."
Beyond mechanical tweaks, Hernandez believes the faith the organization showed in him upon his return to the majors was as instrumental in his success as anything.
“When you know if you go 0-for-4, 0-for-5, and you’re still going to play the next day,” Hernandez says, “that’s when you start to feel good, when you have the confidence from your manager and from your team.
“If you don’t feel that, it’s hard to succeed.”
But what explains the further improvement in 2020? How does a player go from fringe big leaguer to a Silver Slugger Award winner? The most common explanation goes something like this: Hernandez discovered a new level of plate discipline, putting him in advantageous counts, where he feasted. The numbers, however, don’t back up that theory.
Ironically, Hernandez’ most successful season to date was also the year in which he chased outside the strike zone more than ever. As it turns out, what put Hernandez among the game’s best hitters could be the changes he made within the strike zone.
First, Hernandez developed a willingness to take strike one. In fact, he was more willing to take strike one than any other Blue Jay last season, even when compared to one of the most patient hitters in the game, Cavan Biggio. In addition to that, Hernandez drastically cut down how often he swung at breaking balls in the strike zone.
For Hernandez, this meant putting fewer “pitcher’s pitches” in play, and instead waiting for the mistakes big-league pitchers inevitably (albeit, infrequently) make.
“Yeah, that was on purpose,” Hernandez admits when asked about the first strike approach. “That was part of my plan. It was something that I'd never done in my career and I’m not going to stop.”
As for the breaking balls in the strike zone, Hernandez says he noticed, even in hitter’s counts, the curves and sliders thrown to him were rarely strikes because teams were confident he’d chase.
“So, I decided to take the pitch, even if it’s a strike. I didn’t want to go up and swing at everything.”
If you're surprised by Hernandez’s openness on this front, you’re not alone, but he says he’s confident in his varied approaches and aware that adjusting to pitchers is a never-ending process.
Hernandez knew he couldn’t go up to the plate with the same plan of attack every single time and expect it to work. For example, even though he was certainly swinging less often at breaking balls, that doesn’t mean he passed at every get-me-over spinner. And the numbers show he was adapting his approach even as the short season progressed.
The graph above shows that late in 2020, Hernandez started swinging a little bit less at fastballs in the strike zone and a lot more at off-speed stuff. Here’s an example: In this September at-bat against Philadelphia’s David Hale, Hernandez takes a mediocre curve for strike one. At this point, Hale and catcher Rafael Marchan may still be confident enough Hernandez is sitting fastball to try sneaking another breaking ball past him. But Hernandez was ready to ambush.
It seemed like Hernandez’s willingness to take strikes almost lulled pitchers into a false sense of security, and one of the by-products of his new approach was that Hernandez became one of the best fastball hitters in baseball.
Hernandez became laser-focused on squaring up fastballs in good locations, and the underlying numbers backed up his results. His average exit velocity against fastballs (97.6 m.p.h.) was second-best in MLB, trailing only Miguel Sano.
But beyond that improvement against fastballs, Hernandez’ overall numbers in 2020 were drastically improved because of the swings he didn’t take and the outs he didn’t make.
The clip below from 2018 shows Hernandez grounding out on a first pitch fastball running off the inside corner. His career swing rate on that type of pitch before 2020 was around 40 per cent. In 2020? He saw eight first pitch fastballs on the inside corner, swinging only once (12 per cent) and never putting the ball in play.
The video below from 2019 shows two examples where Ryan Yarbrough gets Hernandez to ground out on early-count, outside-corner changeups. It’s a pitch that’s nearly impossible to do damage with, so in 2020, Hernandez essentially stopped swinging at it. He saw 21 changeups on an 0-0 or 1-0 count this past season, and swung just four times, putting the ball in play only once (a double).
This is how an “impatient” hitter like Hernandez, can become selectively patient, and give himself more opportunities to see the types of pitches he wants in the locations he wants.
But there’s no greater test for a hitter’s game plan than the post-season, where scouting reports are meticulously crafted. That was evident in Toronto’s brief 2020 playoff appearance, where Hernandez battled with two of the league’s best starters in Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow.
Hernandez managed one hit and a walk in five plate appearances against the duo, but it’s when you dive into the pitch-by-pitch account of the at-bats that an interesting story develops.
The Rays were undoubtedly aware of Hernandez’s damage against velocity in the regular season, as only 12 of the 29 pitches he saw from Snell and Glasnow were fastballs (41 per cent). Hernandez was really aggressive when he saw fastballs from Tampa’s aces, but swung at only two of the 17 off-speed pitches. Some of his takes against Tampa looked so comfortable, it seemed like Hernandez knew a breaking ball in the dirt was coming. And it turned out, maybe he did.
“They are good pitchers. They are really, really good pitchers,” Hernandez says. “But they don’t throw me strikes.”
“That series, it felt like every count was 3-2. You know why? As soon as you get to two strikes, they don’t throw me strikes.”
Hernandez believes that post-season experience confirmed his approach could work going forward, and against the very best pitchers in the game. But, if hittable fastballs come less often in 2021, will he remain as patient and disciplined as he was against Snell and Glasnow?
Maybe a full season facing many teams he didn’t see in 2020 will make it easier to keep ambushing unsuspecting pitchers, but skepticism of his ability to sustain last season’s production exists. When MLB Network recently listed the top 10 right fielders in the game, Hernandez wasn’t included, and projection systems including PECOTA and ZiPS see him more as the .800 OPS hitter he’s been for most of his career than the hitter he was last season. Whether he defies those expectations will go a long way towards Toronto’s bid for a second straight postseason berth.
“It’s going to be even harder,” Hernandez admits. “They’re going to make me chase sometimes but I know I can do damage in the strike zone. I’m going to be ready.”