In a crowded Toronto Blue Jays outfield, one player who tantalized with power potential will look to take a step forward in 2019.
A home run surge in September nearly a decade ago turned out to be the early stages of Jose Bautista’s coming out party. Bautista hit 10 home runs in September 2009 in 125 plate appearances, and then proceeded to hit 278 more (including the playoffs) in the following eight seasons to become an iconic member of Toronto Blue Jays history.
So I guess it was understandable when Teoscar Hernandez belted 8 home runs in 95 plate appearances in September 2017 that fans started to fantasize over the possibility of another power hitter developing in Toronto.
Obviously expecting anyone to come in and become ‘Joey Bats’ based off an unsustainable home run rate in a small sample size is wishful thinking at its finest, but nonetheless, the Blue Jays needed something to get excited about after the disaster that was the 2017 season, and Hernandez provided at least a glimmer of light.
After a very short stint in the minors to start 2018, Hernandez found his way back onto the big league club on April 13, and never looked back.
However, his performance in 2018 was a bit of a mixed bag.
He was a slightly above league average offensive player in his first full big league season, putting up a 107 wRC+ in 523 plate appearances, with a xSLG of .492 and wOBA of .328. He hit 22 home runs with a strong .229 ISO, so the power that he displayed the previous season was still showing up, although clearly not to the unsustainable level it was in September of that year.
A pedestrian BB% (7.8%) combined with a low batting average (.239) lead to a poor on-base percentage (.302), and he struck out 163 times. His 2017 minor league BB% of 11.2% with the Houston Astros affiliate was a lot more promising, and he also stuck out a lot less that year (20.7% K%), but for whatever reason that has not translated since being traded to Toronto. His K% with the Blue Jays has routinely been over 30% at all levels, and his walk rate has been about what it was in 2018.
What hurt Hernandez more than anything from a strict value standpoint was not with the bat, but with the glove. He was a very poor defensive player at practically every outfield position he was used in. He ended 2018 with a disastrous -16 DRS and -11 UZR in the outfield, and that combined with surprisingly negative base running torpedoed his overall value.
Despite a 107 wRC+, he ended up being slightly above replacement level with a 0.3 fWAR, and that is not nearly enough to be an everyday player at the Major League level.
So the question becomes, should we really get excited about a low-OBP slugger who grades as a negative defensive corner outfielder and base runner (for now)?
Looking at his Stat Cast performance, the answer to that question is………maybe?
Looking deeper into his batted ball profile in 2018, Hernandez showed some promising numbers.
For players with at least 300 batted ball events, here is how Hernandez performed in 2018 along with where that performance ranked among all of MLB:
|Avg Exit Velocity||91.8||13th|
|Exit Velocity on FB/LD||97.7||2nd|
|Average Distance (ft)||201||9th|
|Hard Hit %||45.9||19th|
Digging a little bit deeper, according to Baseball Savant, Hernandez ranked in the 93rd percentile in exit velocity, 90th percentile in hard hit percentage, and 88th percentile in xSLG. He was in the top 3% of the league in barrel percentage.
To put it in simpler terms, Hernandez hits the ball really, really hard and usually hits it in the air at an elite level.
With average exit velocity, where he ranked 13th, only Jackie Bradley Jr, Ryan Braun, Betts, Christian Yelich, Kendrys Morales, Davis, Tommy Pham, Martinez, Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Giancarlo Stanton, and Nelson Cruz finished ahead of him.
With average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, only Stanton finished ahead of him.
While only some, not all, of those players are elite, that is still a pretty good company to be in for a young player in his first full season in the big leagues.
We are in an era of baseball where strike outs for hitters don’t really matter anymore, and exit velocity (along with other Stat Cast indicators mentioned above) are now a major factor in assessing a player’s upside. This front office in particular has targeted players with similar profiles (ex. Grichuk) in hopes of the player reaching another level in performance.
So what exactly does that say about his potential at the plate?
Current 2019 projections are not fans of the slugger, as both Steamer and ZiPS project him to be a below average offensive player and slightly above replacement level player overall.
Steamer: .237/.301/.435, 99 wRC+, 0.4 WAR
ZiPS: .235/.298/.438, 96 OPS+, 0.9 WAR
If his BB% starts to resemble something closer to his pre-Toronto minor league days, then the outlook might be a little brighter. However, those projections might be shortchanging his power potential. Players who hit the ball as hard and as far as Hernandez does are pretty decent hitters (to varying degrees).
Obviously the area Hernandez can make up the most ground in terms of value is defensively. You would hope it couldn’t get any worse for him, and I think that’s a fair assumption to make.
General manager Ross Atkins appears to have made Hernandez’s defense an off-season priority and left field is still wide open for the taking with only Billy McKinney (who has options remaining) standing in the way.
With new manager Charlie Montoyo coming from an organization (the Rays) that shifted more than any team in baseball aside from the Astros the past two seasons, the Jays might be smarter with defensive positioning than they were under previous manager John Gibbons.
Will that help Hernandez’s defense? Too early to tell.
From a base running standpoint, Hernandez was ranked in the 87th percentile in sprint speed, which obviously is not a true indicator of base running ability, but might signify a bit more upside for him in that aspect of the game as well.
In the Dominican Winter League, played after the 2018 season, Hernandez had 53 plate appearances and hit .267/.358/422 with 7 walks and 12 strike outs.
So far in Spring Training, he is hitting .520/.556/.560 with 4 walks and 6 strike outs in 25 at bats.
Obviously, performance in the spring is essentially meaningless, but seeing any type of progress in walk rate will be significant in terms of his future.
Hernandez has a long ways to go to become a capable everyday outfielder at the big league level. There is definitely skill there, but refinements need to be made in order to take the next step forward.
His 2018 showed equal amounts of potential and inconsistency. The Blue Jays and their fans are hoping that 2019 expands on the potential he showed.
The power potential is real. A player can fluke his way to a lot of things statistically, but hitting the ball that hard is usually not one of them. Now it is a question of whether he can turn that exit velocity and barrel ability into an above average big league player and 30+ home runs a season.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Srikant Kabse is a long time baseball fan, accountant, and writer. He currently resides in New Jersey, but grew up in Scarborough Ontario where his love for the sport and for the Blue Jays began as a child. Aside from baseball, Srikant’s interests include fitness, basketball, and traveling.