The Hidden Gem of the Blue Jays Lineup

Teoscar Hernandez has gotten off to a hot start this season.

There was a lot of hype surrounding the Blue Jays lineup coming into 2020, and for good reason. We all know that the four hitters at the top of their lineup are all sons of some pretty notorious former players, including two Hall of Famers. So far through the very early part of the season, though, these big boppers have struggled, but one player has been hitting the life out of the ball thus far in the season. That hitter, of course, being Teoscar Hernandez, who has not just been the best hitter and the main anchor on the Blue Jays, but also one of the best in the league so far, with some of the best batted-ball results of any hitter in the league. How about some visual proof?

Through his first seven games of the 2020 season, Hernandez is running a .321/.355/.821 slash line, with four home runs, which prior to the Jays season being put on hold, had him tied for the league lead in this very early part of the season. Of course, this isn’t sustainable, but this is still extremely good to see from a player that is now 27 years old and has had an inconsistent run through his first couple of seasons in the majors.

Again, while not much stock should be placed into a week or so’s worth of games, looking at the early Statcast hitting leaderboards paints Hernandez in an extremely flattering light. Again, another disclaimer here, as not every team has played the same number of games, and the Blue Jays are one of those teams, so these leaderboards are not as complete as they would be under a more normal season, but still, Herandez is sitting pretty towards the top of some notable ones among qualified hitters:

Teoscar Hernandez: 2020 Statcast Metrics with Ranks

It is a laughably small sample, and while these video game-like numbers will regress, I still do feel confident seeing Hernandez at the top of these leaderboards, as this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon for him. Hernandez has been quite good through parts of his prior three seasons when he gets the bat on the ball. Looking back from 2017 through 2019, Hernandez ranks quite highly when evaluating quite a few of his Statcast metrics. Among the 234 hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances in that time span, Hernandez’s 91.2 mph average exit velocity ranks 23rd out of 204 hitters, his 337 feet of average fly-ball distance is 19th, and his .487 xSLG is 60th. There’s little doubt that Hernandez can hit the ball the well. Even in 2019 when things were extremely rocky at times for Hernandez that we’ll look a little closer at in a bit, he was still completely good on his own, even when accounting for his turbulent performance at times in 2019:

Of course, it all only looks completely good when the focus is just on his batted-ball results, as the above image also highlights his biggest weakness as a hitter. His extremely high whiff and strikeout rates have really limited Hernandez thus far in his career, and may really impact the type of hitter he ultimately becomes. No matter how well he hits the ball, the odds are going to be against him because of these issues. We saw how good Hernandez was when he made contact from 2017 to 2019, let’s see now how he fared in terms of swinging-strike and strikeout rate in the same time span. Spoiler alert: it’s not pretty.

Teoscar Hernandez: K% and SwStr% 2017-2019

Yeah… that is not exactly ideal. There have only been a select few hitters that have had worse rates than Hernandez during the same time span. It should be clearer now just how much of an issue this has been for Hernandez, as he has been one of the hitters with the highest strikeout and swinging-strike rates in the past three seasons. This also reared its ugly head early in the 2019 season, as the story of Hernandez’s season wouldn’t be complete without mentioning his extremely poor results at the beginning of the season. Through May 2019, Hernandez had one of the league’s worst strikeout rates at 29.8%, which matches up with his 15.7% swinging-strike rate. This wouldn’t be so bad if he still had the superb batted-ball results to go along with it, but that was not the case through that portion of the season. Not only was the power completely gone, but Hernandez was one of the league’s worst hitters at that point of the season with a wRC+ of just 47, a mark that placed him seventh-lowest in that department. Hernandez was rightfully demoted to AAA on May 16th, in what was looking like a very disastrous season, a season in which he was expecting to take a leap forward.

Hernandez then had a truly remarkable, and perhaps unlikely, turnaround upon being recalled from AAA Buffalo later in the season. He was extremely productive, and was one of the league’s best hitters in the second half of the season:

Teoscar Hernandez: 1st Half vs 2nd Half 2019

There doesn’t seem to be a rightful explanation for this, but maybe just taking a few weeks to reset and work with some different coaches made something click for Hernandez in Buffalo, but these types of results in the second half of the season are definitely more of what we would expect out of Hernandez, at least in terms of batted-ball results, than what he showed earlier in the year.

While his strikeout was even higher at 36% in the second half of the season, he did manage to slightly improve his swinging-strike rate from his previous highs, and chased a lot less as well. These factors, combined with pitchers having to pitch more carefully to him helped him also draw walks at a very encouraging 11.4% rate:

Teoscar Hernandez: 2019 Plate Discipline Splits

These improvements look good, and while they are still far from ideal, it matters less when a hitter hits the ball as well as Hernandez did in this span, and ended up driving his strong second-half results. That Statcast results were excellent as well for Hernandez in this span, as he was hitting the ball harder and with more authority as has been expected from him over the course of his career:

Teoscar Hernandez: Monthly Statcast Metrics

Those blistering numbers to end the season appear to have carried over into the early part of this season, as we remember how good of a start he has gotten off to in 2020. Looking at Hernandez’s season to this point, we know that he is crushing the ball, as expected, and also that his strikeout and whiff rates are high, again as expected. Is there anything different in his profile that we can see so far?

We’re looking for improvement in the plate discipline department, and one look at his plate discipline profile shows that he is whiffing and chasing more from where he was in 2019, but there are still some interesting things happening here:

Teoscar Hernandez: Plate Discipline 2019 vs. 2020

One note to be made is that now we’re looking at Hernandez’s whiff rate as opposed to swinging-strike rate, which is why the whiff number is much higher than the swinging-strike numbers referenced earlier. But from this table, it looks like the main difference for Hernandez in the early part of 2020 compared to 2019 has been how frequently or, I guess, infrequently Hernandez is swinging at pitches in the zone. Hernandez appears to be staying more disciplined on pitches that are in the strike zone and chasing more pitches out of the zone. This is not really what would be expected out of Hernandez, a hitter who has been a free swinger throughout his career. This may just be a bit of some early-season weirdness, but nonetheless, it still looks does look good that maybe Hernandez has made some improvements in this area. The plus side here is that perhaps by being more selective on which pitches he is swinging at in the zone, he is making more contact on pitches in the zone than he ever has in his career:

Teoscar Hernandez: Zone-Contact% 2016-2020

For additional context, the league average for zone-contact rate is around 83%, so Hernandez is trending closer to the league average, after being nearly 10 percentage points lower than league average in this department a season ago.

So, if it looks like Hernandez is making more contact in the zone, that means he is whiffing less on pitches in the strike zone. That means then that the explanation for Hernandez’s higher overall whiff rate in 2020 has to be explained by him whiffing more on pitches out of the zone. It seems pretty obvious when you think about it, as if a hitter is making more contact on pitches in the zone, they have to be whiffing less, and if they’re making less contact on pitches out of the zone, they have to be whiffing more, but here are the raw numbers in the case of Hernandez:

Teoscar Hernandez: Zone-Whiff% vs. Chase-Whiff% 2019-2020

Breaking it out this way, you get a clearer view of just how much more Hernandez is whiffing on pitches out of the zone and, ultimately, a clearer view of his plate discipline profile so far in 2020. The most important thing to take from this is that in 2019, Hernandez’s 27.1 zone-whiff rate was one of the worst in baseball, and for now, he has it at a much more manageable rate, which is a good sign. While Hernandez would be better off whiffing less on the whole, I would imagine his super high chase-whiff rate drops back down from that current super high mark and at the least down to where it was a season ago. It does remain to be seen if his zone-whiff rate will continue to trend down, but it is something worth monitoring as the season progresses. If it does continue to stay in its current range, Hernandez should be a much more complete hitter than he has been in previous seasons.

This all ultimately does not change the facts much about Hernandez. He is still generally a productive hitter that scorches the ball but is still a little rough around the edges in the plate discipline department that may ultimately hold him back. So far in 2020, Hernandez has continued to maintain his reputation as a hard-hitter, and while the plate discipline issues are still a concern, a closer look does reveal some improvement. What does this mean for fantasy purposes? There are so many great outfielders, but one thing is for certain in that Hernandez’s power is for real. We’ll have to wait-and-see what happens in the plate discipline department. In 60 or so games, we still may not have a clear enough answer, but Hernandez should continue to be a solid option and definitely worth rostering, especially in more than 45% of leagues as he is currently in Yahoo leagues.

 

Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Matt Wallach

Matt writes for Pitcher List and Rotoballer and is a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees. He can be found always talking baseball on Twitter @Wallach18.

  • Josiah DeBoer Josiah DeBoer says:

    Great article, Matt. I’m really excited to see if Teoscar can keep this up. If he excells and the rest of the young Jays play to their potential, that could add even more potency to what looks like a really exciting young lineup.

    • Avatar Matt Wallach says:

      Thanks, Josiah, glad you liked it. Teoscar has always been interesting to me since he landed in Toronto, so I’m glad to see him doing well. The Jays lineup should be good for a very long time.

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