TORONTO — Over the past two years, Teoscar Hernandez has morphed from defensive liability and social media mark to dangerous middle-of-the-order threat and a player integral to the Toronto Blue Jays’ hopes.
He’s answered every single question along the way, turning just about every doubter into a believer at some point.
Now, there’s another question popping up: What’s the ceiling?
The changes Hernandez started making in the summer of 2019 when he was demoted to Triple-A — and the all-important confidence that grew from the success thereafter — are well-documented.
Since then, all Hernandez has done is hit.
The reason it’s flown under the radar is because the breakout has now spanned three separate seasons and the full campaign stat line hasn’t had a chance to stare everyone in the face.
But since returning from the All-Star break in July of 2019, through last year’s shortened 60-game schedule, plus the first two and a half months of this season, Hernandez’s 636 plate appearances have produced 44 home runs and a .280/.343/.554 slash line.
Since manager Charlie Montoyo shifted him to the cleanup spot last season, he’s barely moved, while Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s emergence in the three-spot has formed a scary, run-producing one-two punch in the middle of the lineup.
They’re benefitting each other in different ways right now, but teams working around Vladdy to get to Hernandez are starting to realize that’s not exactly a good plan, either.
The numbers for Hernandez since a bout with COVID-19 — including Sunday’s two-homer, six-RBI exclamation point — are huge: .310/.366/.519 with nine home runs and a 141 wRC+ since April 30.
“I am going to have more games like the one I had today with six RBI because they don’t want to pitch to Vladdy,” Hernandez said matter-of-factly. “He’s more than on fire right now. I think they’d rather pitch to me, not to Vladdy.”
Another step for Hernandez is likely tied to his strikeout rate.
The 28-year-old is always going to be whiff prone — since that July date two years ago he’s still struck out 31.3 per cent of the time — but the swing decisions he’s making this year are more consistent than ever and he’s already cut the Ks to 26.9 per cent, which has his batting average sitting at a career-high .294.
The power is going to be there. With less swing-and-miss sticking through the summer months, there could even be another level to reach.
THINGS I MIGHT’VE TWEETED
Cavan Biggio’s homer Sunday might’ve been the most important out of the eight the Jays crushed at Fenway simply because he needs to get on a roll. The hand and neck injuries Biggio has been dealing with this season affected him way more than he would ever let on, according to those around the team, but he’s now back to full health and could be ready to turn the corner. Two homers in two games is evidence of that … The three last names – Biggio, Bichette and Guerrero Jr. – homered in the same game for the first time as major leaguers Saturday at Fenway. Then they did the exact same thing Sunday … It’s weird to see Hyun Jin Ryu struggling a bit and losing starts as he’s done in his last two outings, but no one seems concerned about the staff ace. Yes, the strikeouts are down this year and the homers are up, but Ryu has been battling his mechanics and the frustration has been evident on the mound, which is rare to see. His scheduled start Tuesday against the New York Yankees will be watched closely.
STAT DIG: 5.37 ERA
When the calendar flipped to May, the bullpen was the strength.
It had carried the club through some shaky starting pitching during the first month of the season and were sitting on a 2.52 collective ERA and had been worth 1.0 fWAR, seventh-best in baseball.
Oh, how things change.
From May 1 on, those numbers jump to 4.60 and minus-0.2 fWAR, but it has gotten even worse recently.
Over their past 68.2 innings since a May 20 meltdown, the bullpen has not only been awful, it’s been consistently losing games, running up minus-1.1 fWAR — by far the worst mark in baseball — and a 5.27 ERA.
Free passes have been the big issue, as Jays relievers have been walking 5.5 batters per nine innings, which is (again) by far the worst mark in baseball.
It hasn’t been pretty.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“It’s just happened that one phase of our team has been struggling and that’s pretty important in the game of baseball — your bullpen. Other than that, we’ve played really good. If we fix that and get better on that side, we’re going to do well.”
—Manager Charlie Montoyo on the bullpen’s recent woes
THE CALL-UP LIST
Five players closest to a promotion to the big leagues when a need arises:
RHP Thomas Hatch, Triple-A: The righty threw two shutout innings on Friday as he continues to work his way back physically and get his pitch count built up.
RHP Nate Pearson, Triple-A: Montoyo said this week that Hatch and Pearson will continued to be stretched out as starters in the minors, rather than call on them to help a beleaguered bullpen. Pearson went five full frames for the first time this season in his last outing on Thursday.
RHP Patrick Murphy, Triple-A: In his return from an AC joint shoulder injury that shelved him back in spring training, the 2013 third-rounder hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last 7.1 innings.
LHP Anthony Kay, Triple-A: The lefty has allowed eight earned runs across his two June starts with the Bisons and hasn’t really been sharp all season.
RHP Hobie Harris, Triple-A: A minor-league phase Rule 5 draft pick, Harris is armed with triple-digit heat and is pitching well in his first taste of Triple-A at the age of 28. He is, however, the only name on this list not on the 40-man roster, making a call-up a little trickier.
Highlighting one player in the system that you need to know about:
SS Kevin Smith, Triple-A Buffalo
Once a darling breakout prospect when he bashed 25 homers and stole 29 bases across two A-ball levels back in 2018, strikeout issues caught up to the East Greenbush, N.Y., native in the upper minors.
Coming off that breakout campaign, the 2017 fourth-round pick followed up by striking out 32.3 per cent of the time and hitting just .209 in Double-A in 2019.
He then went on to struggle with the same swing-and-miss issues in the Arizona Fall League that year, something I saw first-hand as scouts openly wondered if he’d be able to make enough contact.
Well, with the benefit of a year behind the scenes last summer, Smith has turned things around and put together a tremendous run to start the season at Triple-A, slashing .274/.386/.557 with seven homers and six steals in 31 games.
More importantly, he’s cut the K-rate to about 25 per cent, while also walking 14 per cent of the time.
Turning 25 next month, Smith could be in line for a cameo later this summer because the glove is already beyond major-league ready and he can capably play short, third and second if needed.
The key adjustment with the bat?
A better swing plane — hence, less strikeouts so far — and an up-the-middle approach that’s been preached to him by Bisons hitting coach Corey Hart.