TORONTO — A humbling three days in the Bronx for the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t provide many positive signs that this ballclub is peaking at the right time.
But if there’s one positive to take away, one reason for hope, it was the early return of Teoscar Hernandez from an oblique strain.
If anything has become clear during the month of September, it’s this: For the Jays to play the role of Cinderella come October — yes, they’re still in great position to be there with 97.1 per cent odds to make the postseason, per FanGraphs — the offence will likely have to carry them.
With Hyun-Jin Ryu the only real playoff-calibre starter they have, Hernandez and the 11th-ranked Blue Jays offence at 4.9 runs per game are going to have to catch fire at the right time.
Hernandez now has about a week and a half to rediscover the swing that led him to a .995 OPS prior to the injury on Sept. 5.
It’s no secret to manager Charlie Montoyo that the offence will have to show up in order to hang with teams like the Yankees.
“You do have to swing the bats to beat these guys and having a guy like Teoscar is going to help our lineup, for sure,” Montoyo said. “When he got hurt, he was one of the best hitters in baseball. It was tough timing to lose a guy like that. He was on fire; he was doing so well, and he means a lot to your lineup.”
Hernandez’s hot bat started long before 2020, lending hope to the idea that it’s a product of hard work and adjustments, and not a two-month sample-size blip.
The turnaround started last June after he was demoted to Triple-A Buffalo for three weeks with a .189/.262/.299 slash line and just three home runs in 39 games.
Known as a free swinger with oodles of power, Hernandez started to rein in his approach a little bit and the results have come with it.
From the day he was recalled when he collected two hits on June 5, Hernandez has been a different hitter, compiling a .265/.333/.571 slash line with 37 home runs across 487 plate appearances.
“Since last year, his second half was outstanding,” Montoyo said. “He made a great adjustment at the plate and then he followed that through spring training, summer camp and he’s doing it again this year.
“Of all the players I’ve seen, he’s made the biggest adjustment at the plate and it’s showing up.”
Oftentimes, the adjustments hitters need to make are simple ones.
Don’t confuse that with easy, however.
For Hernandez, it was clear he was chasing too many breaking balls down and away, and opposing pitchers had recognized that.
He would still pound mistakes from time to time, but the consistency in the approach was a problem.
The adjustment Montoyo mentioned took time, according to hitting coach Guillermo Martinez.
“Teo did a great job finding himself last year once he came back from Triple-A,” Martinez said. “He simplified his routine, simplified his in-game approach and focused on staying through the middle of the field. His approach allowed him to back the ball up, which led him to make better decisions at the plate.
“He has worked tremendously hard since his return. It’s fun to watch a hitter with his focus become a master of his work and I truly believe that what we’re seeing is a byproduct of the adjustments he has made.”
This year, Hernandez is actually swinging at less pitches inside the strike zone, but he’s doing more damage when he connects, upping his line-drive rate from 17.8 per cent last year to 29.1 per cent this year.
His hard-hit rate also sits at a gaudy 52.4 per cent.
Simply put, he’s been in a groove and barrelling baseballs up regularly.
“Try to go with one plan and stay with it and don’t away from it,” Hernandez said of his approach. “Try to look for a pitch that you can do damage to, that was my key and my plan this year.”
Another key, like so many Blue Jays hitters this year, has been his two-strike approach, something pushed by hitting assistant Dante Bichette.
“With the help of Dante, Teo has been able to now also improve his two-strike approach, which also allows him to grind out at-bats long enough to get another good pitch to hit,” Martinez said.
Hernandez is batting .176 with two strikes, above the league average.
The relationship between Martinez and Bichette seems to be working to perfection this summer.
Martinez focuses on game plans and the technical side in the batting cages, while Bichette’s enormous amount of experience and success as a major-league hitter seems to resonate with the young Blue Jays hitters, especially when things aren’t going well.
“Guillermo doesn’t have the experience in the big leagues, but he’s a good guy and he knows a lot about hitting,” Hernandez said. “Having Dante here, it helps a lot because he knows what we feel, he knows what we go through. He gets you ready mentally.”
There’s a long way to go before the Jose Bautista comparisons some are making ring completely true, but it’s easy to see the similarities in age, mid-career adjustments, power and home country.
Hernandez feels good about the steps he’s taken in his age-27 campaign.
“I think my average and to be on base more for my team, that’s what makes me more excited about this season and the things I was doing at the beginning,” Hernandez said. “That was the biggest one — try to get on base. I know I had my on-base percentage the last two or three years really low, so making that improvement has made myself proud of the work I put in in the off-season.”
Personally, this season can only be chalked up as a complete success for Hernandez, who will head into 2021 with all sorts of helium no matter how 2020 ends.
Team-wise, the Jays need him to finish hot and rediscover that groove.
“I don’t know,” Hernandez said when asked if he can do that after his IL stint. “I’ve felt okay. Not the way I was before I was hurt, but let’s see how it goes and I’m going to try to do my best and keep doing what I was doing.