Blue Jays’ OF, Teoscar Hernandez, is having a great spring, so we look at what that could mean for the 2019 season
Teoscar Hernandez‘s strong spring has been a focal point for Jays fans. Coming off a mixed 2018 season, Hernandez still has the potential to be an everyday outfielder. Given the system’s limited upper-level outfield depth, Hernandez meeting that potential would be a subtle but important factor in accelerating the Blue Jays’ rebuild.
How strong has his spring been? Among qualified batters, Hernandez ranks ninth across the majors in OPS (1.040). Most impressively for a batter with a career MLB OBP of .303, Hernandez ranks fourth among qualified batters with a .479 OBP. Two big reasons for his strong OBP are a walk rate (14.6%) that’s nearly double his MLB career average (7.9%) and a strikeout rate (22.9%) that is roughly league-average and a lot lower than his 31.1% career mark.
Obviously, it is important to make clear that these numbers have come against a mix of major- and minor-league pitching. Baseball Reference assigns him an Opponent Quality score of 7.1, which means that, on average, he’s faced Double-A pitching this spring. As such, while Hernandez’s spring stats point to improvements at the plate, they are far from definitive evidence.
With this combination of uncertainty and optimism surrounding Hernandez’s 2019 season (and beyond), I thought it’d be useful to lay out some potential seasons he could realistically end up having. Some would see him underperform his career numbers, while others would give Jays fans an idea of what Teoscar Hernandez, everyday corner outfielder, would look like.
There’s essentially four key aspects of his game for us to focus on: his batted ball profile, his plate discipline, his defence and (to a lesser extent) his base running.
Over his MLB career, the one thing going for him has been his batted ball profile. Sri Kabse did a great job examining this (and other aspects of Hernandez’s game) last week, so I’ll keep it simple. Hernandez has posted a .452 wOBA on batted balls as a major leaguer. That is very good. Over his three MLB seasons (2016-18), the average big leaguer has posted a .370 mark. Over this span, 345 batters have produced 400+ batted balls. Only 21 of them have produced a wOBA on batted balls better than Hernandez’s mark. Importantly, his .447 xwOBA on batted balls suggests that these strong results are supported by the quality of contact he has generated.
Hernandez has been less successful in terms of the other three aspects of his game. He has struck out far more than most—his 31.1% strikeout rate dwarfs that of the average major leaguer over the last three seasons (21.7%). He has walked (7.9%) a little less often than most (8.4%). He has produced 21.3 defensive runs and 2.5 baserunning runs fewer than the average major leaguer.
The one positive and three negatives have allowed him to accumulate 0.8 fWAR over 730 major league plate appearances (or 0.7 fWAR per 600 PA), a little bit better than replacement-level.
Potentiality #1: Replacement-level or worse (≤0 WAR)
Let’s start with the worst-case scenario and work our way up from there. Given that he has been only slightly better than replacement-level over his MLB career, it wouldn’t take much for him to dip into negative WAR territory. A combination of even more strikeouts or even fewer walks or even poorer defence or base running would do the trick.
More realistically, a slight dip in his batted ball results, by itself, would bring him down to replacement-level (or worse). His .452 wOBA on batted balls, combined with his poor plate discipline, has driven him to a .331 wOBA overall. Let’s say he only manages to produce a .432 wOBA on batted balls, roughly the same mark Nick Castellanos, Matt Olson and Kyle Schwarber have each produced since 2016. All else equal, that would drop his wOBA down to the 2016-18 league average (.318).
With average hitting, below-average base running and well below-average defence, Teoscar Hernandez would be a sub-replacement-level player.
Potentiality #2: Status quo (0-1 WAR)
A simple possible outcome is for Teoscar to keep being Teoscar and replicate his early-career performance as a slightly better-than-replacement player.
Potentiality #3: Modest improvements (1-2 WAR)
Just as a regression in Hernandez’s primary strength (contact quality) is the most likely way he takes a step back this season, a progression in his primary weakness (plate discipline) will likely be key to any improvements.
Let’s say he maintains his contact quality and walk rate, but only strikes out 29.5% of the time. That would get him up to a .337 wOBA and, if he maintains his defence and base running, get his single-season WAR up to 1.5. That’s better than he’s been so far in his major league career, but still not at the level of a solid MLB starter.
Potentiality #4: Solid starter (2-3 WAR)
There are a few ways that Teoscar can play his way up to the level of a solid everyday player, some more realistic than others—replicating his Triple-A strikeout rate of 21.1% would get his WAR up to 2.9, all by itself.
A more plausible path to solid starter status would involve some across-the-board improvements.
Let’s say he generates slightly better contact quality (.455 wOBA on batted balls), strikes out a little bit less (27%) and walks a little bit more (9%). These gains would power him to a .353 wOBA overall, putting him in the Top 50 or so across the majors. Additionally, let’s assume that he improves his corner outfield defence from very poor (-11.4 career UZR/150) to just regular poor (-5 UZR/150). Moreover, let’s assume that he more effectively taps into his speed (28.5 ft/s vs. the MLB average of 27 ft/s) and improves his base running value from below-average (-2 career BsR per 600 PA) to average (0 BsR).
Together, these improvements would bring his single-season WAR up to 2.5.
I have no clue how Teoscar Hernandez’s 2019 season will play out. I’m hopeful it will go a little better than his 2018 season, as that level of performance is simply not good enough for an everyday position player on a team that hopes to soon contend.
His spring training performance is certainly hopeful, particularly the improved plate discipline. Taking those improvements with him into the regular season will be key to his chances of avoiding Potentialities #1 and #2.
Ultimately, in order for him to take a meaningful step forward, it will be essential for him to make some defensive gains. There are reasons for optimism. It’s been a couple of years, but before the 2017 season, Eric Longenhagen gave his fielding a current value of 50 and a future value of 55, so basically average or slightly better. During his time at Triple-A, his corner outfield defence earned him 8 FRAA (93 games) from Clay Davenport.
Another reason to be hopeful is a change new manager Charlie Montoyo has discussed: moving his outfielders back a little bit. Last season, Hernandez generated -7 outs above average (OAA) when having to move back to catch a ball, but 2 OAA when having to move in. Put another way, he was 9 outs better when having to move in to make a catch than when having to move back. Among 87 outfielders with at least 150 catch attempts, only three had a wider gap between their OAA moving in and their OAA moving back.
Strong 2019s from any of the Blue Jays’ upper-level outfielders (namely Hernandez, Billy McKinney, Anthony Alford, Dalton Pompey and Jonathan Davis) would help the team’s rebuild. While the system has plenty of infield depth at all levels, as well as some promising outfielders developing in the lower-minors, those aforementioned players are the team’s best internal options for filling the outfield in the potential early years of contention (2020-21). A breakout season for Teoscar Hernandez would check off another box for the Blue Jays and make it more likely that those years are, in fact, the beginning of a perennial contender.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.