This short series will examine several Blue Jays with shorter track records around whose production there is significant uncertainty and the reasons to be both bullish or bearish on what they will do in 2021. First up, Teoscar Hernandez.
- Steamer: .236/.307/.453 in 614 PA, 98 wRC+ 0.5 WAR
- ZiPS: .247/.312/.524 in 539 PA, 115 wRC+, 1.6 WAR
- Marcel: .243/.313/.474 in 526 PA, ~110 wRC+
- The BAT X: .247/.317/.486 in 640 PA, 112 wRC+
Will the real Teoscar please stand up? After coming over from Houston in 2017, he posted an explosive September with 8 HR powering a .341 ISO and 134 wRC+. But he followed that with almost 1,000 PA of inconsistency over 2018-19, plagued by strikeout woes offsetting legitimate power to net out to a fringy 105 wRC+ for a corner outfield profile. That set up 2020 as a pivotal year for his future, and of course he more than delivered with 16 HR and a 143 wRC+ in the abbreviated 50 game campaign.
Of course, it was still just 207 wRC+ over a couple months, with some obvious markers of unsustainability such as a .348 BABIP. On the more optimistic side, it built on a strong second half in 2019 in which he posted a 126 wRC+ in 323 PA after being recalled from AAA in early June. In total, that makes for a 132 wRC+ over his last 530 PA which is a lot harder to dismiss as a sample sample mirage — that’ll play. Then again, he’s still striking out over 30% of the time, there really hasn’t been any improvement when it comes to his very significant Achilles heel.
Accordingly, there’s more variance in the projection systems than is usually the case given that they mostly use similar methodologies and inputs. Steamer pegs him below his 2018-19 level, while even the most optimistic in ZiPS sees substantial regression.
Earlier this winter, I did a little digging into what made for elite batted ball outcomes. To start, I pulled all hitters with at least 750 PA in 2018-20 (as a proxy for a 500 batted ball minimum). I then split total wRC+ into wRC+ on batted balls, and wRC+ on “plate outcomes” (walks, HBP, strikeouts). Here’s a summary of how it breaks down:
As we know, wRC+ is scaled so that 100 represents the overall average. Here, it’s a little higher since setting a 750 PA minimum results in a small selection bias, weeding out mostly weaker hitters. The next two categories show the incentives of why baseball has evolved towards all-or-nothing outcomes. Hitters make their marks on balls in play, because they can pile up extra bases — in terms of average run values, a home run offsets about five outs. With an average outcome 35% better than the overall average, batters want as many of their outcomes coming in this bucket.
By contrast, when it comes to outcomes at the plate, even the very best hitters barely break even (compared to the broader MLB average). In terms of run values, a walk isn’t worth a lot more than what an out destroys, so the overall average is quite low. Pitchers thus want as much of their outcomes weighted to this bucket. Pile up as man strikeouts as possible, if that comes at the cost of some free passes, so be it — that’s still better than the average ball in play.
Unsurprisingly, sorting the list by wRC+ on batted balls only produced a leaderboard of baseball’s elite sluggers:
To my surprise, there in 11th place of 244 (an already quite select group), wedged between Pete Alonso and J.D. Martinez, was one Teoscar Hernandez. Keep in mind, this is for the entire 2018-20 period, including all those struggles and despite excluding that September 2017 breakout. So I was not expecting Teoscar to rank anywhere near the 95th percentile (much less slightly above). Categorically, he’s one of MLB’s elite when it comes to crushing balls in play.
So what’s holding him back, keeping his overall production much closer to the middle? It’s the plate outcomes. His “production” when he doesn’t put the ball in play is the worst on the list, with only Joey Gallo and Yoan Moncada in the same ballpark. Some strikeout at similar 30%+ rates, but with a double digit walk rate. Teoscar’s walk rate, while decent overall, is actually substandard for elite sluggers who are pitched much more careful.
But it actually goes beyond ranking at the 8th percentile overall for plate outcomes — it drives an unfavourable mix between the two buckets. It’s actually possible for a hitter to be below average on both batted ball and plate outcomes, and yet be above average overall if he ends up with a higher mix of the better outcomes (Did Gregorius did this in 2016-17 when he walked under 4%, struck out 13%, with mediocre results on batted balls).
This “mix effect” is apparent comparing Teoscar to Javier Baez, whom is included at the bottom of the above table. Teoscar edges him in batted ball productivity and Baez’s plate outcomes are even worse, but they have the same overall wRC+. Baez walks and strikes out 4% less often, which in isolation is not a good tradeoff and hence the atrocious plate outcomes. But when that means 8% more batted balls at 190 wRC+, it’s a great tradeoff.
Across all hitters, 69% of PA fall in the (better) batted ball bucket, with the remaining 31% in the (worse) plate outcome bucket. With all the strikeouts, Teoscar puts the ball in play a hair under 60% of the time, or 10% lower. If he had the same rates of productivity with a league average mix, his wRC+ would be about 132, about 20 points higher. (this would work out to something like 4% walk rate and 27% strikeout rate, which of course seems worse).
The mix effect is often an underappreciated factor contributing to breakouts. For example, when Justin Smoak broke out in 2017 by making a lot more contact and reducing his strikeout rate, I made this chart bridging the increase in his wRC+:
Smoak improved his batted balls outcomes (which actually regressed by the end of the year), and the reduced strikeout rate on his own helped. But the single biggest factor was shifting over 10% of plate appearances to more high productivity batted balls (independent of the batted balls being better). This was also a significant factor in the transformations of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. First they has batted ball breakthroughs, but then second that was leveraged in having underlying batting eye to leverage being pitched more carefully into better plate outcomes.
In my view then, the real breakout potential for Teoscar Hernandez would really lie in being able to significantly reduce his strikeout rate. Incrementally, it did come down a little to 30% in 2020, but that’s not a statistically significant difference (or even close, p=0.68) and the 32% rate from mid-2019 onward almost exactly matches his career rate.
Digging through the Statcast data, one smaller thing that sticks out in 2020 was he swing less often early and ahead in the count, around 31% in line with league average compared to 38%. This resulted in more called strikes but also a higher contact rate, so this seems like a good tweak in approach to be more selective and lay off more marginal pitches. To the extent his contact rate has ticked up a bit since 2019, it’s mostly here. His contact rate is still ~10% worse than league average across the board.
Barring a Smoak-like improvement in contact rate, the strikeout issues are likely to hold him back from being an elite force at the plate over time. He’s still only 28, so it’s not impossible, but it would quite unforeseen. Most likely, he is who he is at this point.
Conclusion: Moderately bullish. Teoscar Hernandez has proven to be a truly elite hitter on batted balls, and the only plausible question at this point is if the true talent level is 90th or 95th+ percentile. I’d probably lean towards the latter and consequently the high side of the projections, but the plate outcome/strikeout issues probably hold him back from sustaining elite production.
Vis-a-vis the average of projection, on Teoscar Hernandez, I am
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