Teoscar Hernandez changes plans
If you’re a one-number analyst, Teoscar Hernández is having an unremarkable season. After posting a 132 wRC+ last year, he is back with a 129 this year. His overall batting line is down – .274/.326/.495 from .296/.346/.524 in 2021 – but between playing all of his home games in Toronto instead of Dunedin and Buffalo and the drop overall league-wide offense, he was about the same hitter relative to the league average in both years.
If you look at its underlying rates, you still won’t see much difference. Hernández walks 0.5 percentage points more often this season than last season. He withdraws 1.4 percentage points more often. It uses similar ISO, similar BABIP and similar barrel rate. But zoom in just a little and things explode:
The season splits of Teoscar Hernández
Here’s a story you could tell about his season: he struggled to start the year, made some adjustments that righted the ship somewhat but resulted in too many strikeouts, and finally put things together . You wouldn’t even necessarily be wrong; descriptively, these things all happened. Under the hood, however, Hernández made a big tweak, which you won’t see in this data.
In 2021, he swung 39.8% of the first pitches he saw; in his career before 2022, he swung at 35.3% of them. In the first two months of this year, he swung 35% of those same 0-0 shots. It’s quite aggressive; over the past two seasons, the league’s average swing rate on 0-0 counts is 30%. For his career, Hernández was in the 88th percentile among all players in first pitch swing rate before the 2022 season. Then he made an edit:
This is the first pitch swing rate; each data point corresponds to 25 plate appearances, starting with his 25th plate appearance of the year. Hernández entered the year as aggressively as ever, and perhaps even more so, hovering between 40% and 50% of opening slots.
It wasn’t really working for him. Pitchers threw a lot of junk at him because they knew he was much more likely than the average hitter to hit something. A fastball that passes me? Curve hanging in the middle for a strike called? You can’t do this against aggressive swingers, but you don’t have to either, and pitchers have taken notice. In 2021, 62% of first pitches seen by Hernández were fastballs. In the first third of this season, that number dropped to 46%. Want to have a bad time? Take a fastball hunting approach when pitchers know what you’re planning.
Over the next third of the season (cutting it into thirds is more convenient than anything, but it certainly works well in this narrative), Hernández experimented. He took an extremely passive approach. He started swinging aggressively again. He tried a little column A, a little column B. In the end, he was content to swing only 20% of the time, more or less. Since the All-Star break, he’s been even more selective, swinging 15% on first pitches.
This decision paid off in several ways. First, pitchers can’t keep attacking Hernández with breaking pitches and expect to get ahead in the count, so they had to mix in more fastballs. He’s seeing first-pitch fastballs a lot more often than he did at the start of the year, and that’s led to an increase in results when he swings. It’s still small-sample theater, of course, but a strong touch is no wrong thing:
Results of the batted ball from Teoscar Hernández’s first pitch
Additionally, Hernández drastically reduced his prosecution. During the first third of the season, he chased 16 plate appearance opening pitches. In the middle of the third, he chased four. Since July 6 (the most recent third of the season), he has chased exactly one pitch 0-0. I don’t really blame him for this one:
His behavior on the first throws is a microcosm of his overall behavior. Take a look at his swing rates by zone, excluding two-strike pitches where the count encourages aggressive zone defense:
Teoscar Hernández swing rate per zone game
The trade-off is clear. Hernández swings fewer throws over the heart of the plate, and in exchange, he swings fewer throws from the pitcher, those from the “shadow zone” around the edges of the strike zone. I wouldn’t normally recommend this swap to anyone, but for Hernández, the compromise worked. Despite having a slightly diminished swing rate on the best pitches on offer, he is among the league leaders in production on the heart of home plate. In exchange, he cemented what was the weakest part of his game last year, his propensity to seek fringe throws and retire from at-bats.
It’s not as simple as that. Pitchers also have agency and they can adjust their approach depending on what Hernández is doing. They will have to. In the past, having a high withdrawal rate was simply a cost of doing business for him; combining an aggressive approach to the plate with below-average contact numbers means he’s still going to run into the occasional clump of empty plate spawns. That didn’t stop him from being a valuable hitter, but it was a headwind.
At the moment, it seems that this headwind is diminishing. Take a look at a rolling 15-game chart of his strikeout rate:
It’s a terrifying picture for Blue Jays opponents because Hernández’s contact power isn’t going anywhere. His walk rate hasn’t budged either. It’s by no means sterling, but it’s not about him lowering strikeouts through pure Astudillo-esque aggression. It’s just a new approach. Want another way of looking at things? We’ve already covered Hernández’s newfound ability to dismiss difficult pitches. Let’s add the tracking rate to the graph:
Everything is connected. Fewer boundary pitch swings means fewer chases, which means fewer strikeouts, which means pitchers have to bite the ball and challenge it more often. The next logical step for pitchers in this dance would be to amp up their first-pitch aggression and get ahead in the count; after all, Hernández specifically toned down his aggression there. But does anyone really want to pump fastballs to middle plate at one of baseball’s best fastball hitters?
It might be the right decision in the long run. Heck, in the long run, Hernández might start swinging more even without pitchers doing anything. Maybe he’s having a good month and he’ll be back to his old approach by the end of the year. Maybe it’s a bluff, and he’s already decided to start swinging aggressively again, no matter what the pitchers are doing.
But if Hernández has progressed, if he’s suddenly becoming hard to hit in addition to prodigious power on any court, you’ll know why. First, he held back his approach to the first pitch. Then he made a conscious effort to reduce the swing on the boundary pitches, even if it meant letting a few good ones through. I don’t know what will happen after that, but I know Toronto’s AL East opponents won’t be happy that Hernández was able to take what looked like a down year in May and turn it into an opportunity to improvement.