Oblique Strain Interrupts Teoscar Hernández’s Breakout

Even before they dropped 10 runs on a beleaguered Yankees bullpen on Monday night, the Blue Jays rated as one of the season’s top success stories. Coming off three straight sub-.500 seasons, forced out of their home country and into their Triple-A ballpark amid the coronavirus pandemic, and fielding the majors’ youngest lineup, the temporary inhabitants of Buffalo’s Sahlen Field are nonetheless running second in the American League East at 23-18, 4 1/2 games behind the Rays (28-14) but two games ahead of the banged-up Yankees (21-20). While much of the focus has been on the likes of Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. given their pedigrees, their best hitter to date has been Teoscar Hernández, but the 27-year-old slugger’s impressive breakout has been interrupted by a left oblique strain and he appears likely to miss “serious time.”

After going hitless in back-to-back starts for the first time this season — an outage which in this case ended his career-high 15-game hitting streak — Hernández went 3-for-5 on Saturday against the Red Sox, with a 442-foot solo homer to center field off Ryan Weber in the second inning:

The homer was his 14th of the season, pulling him into a short-lived tie with Mike Trout and Fernando Tatis Jr. for the major league lead; within the hour, Trout homered against the Astros, the 300th of his career no less, and Tatis homered Sunday, but that’s impressive company nonetheless.

However, Hernández’s day ended on a down note, as he suffered a left oblique strain while striking out in his final plate appearance, against Mike Kickham. An MRI taken on Sunday morning proved inconclusive, and so the Blue Jays planned for him to get a second MRI once the swelling reduced, but the team placed him on the 10-day Injured List on Monday nonetheless. “That’s going to be a big loss if he has to go out a while,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo told reporters on Sunday.

Hernández is in the midst of one of the season’s most impressive breakouts, batting .308/.358/.637 in 159 plate appearances; through the Blue Jays’ first 40 games, that was a 56-homer pace. Among AL hitters, his slugging percentage ranks third behind only Trout (.676) and Nelson Cruz (.643), while his 164 wRC+ is fifth behind Cruz, Trout, Tim Anderson, and Anthony Rendon. Trout, Cruz, and Rendon all have All-Star appearances under their belts, while Anderson was last year’s AL batting champion and is currently taking his game to a higher level. Hernández, on the other hand, entered the year owning a .237/.304/.476 (106 wRC+) line through his four seasons — two full ones with the Blue Jays, plus venti-sized cups of coffee with the Astros (41 games in 2016, one game in ’17) and Jays (26 games in ’17). Last year, he hit a lopsided .230/.306/.472 with 26 homers and 1.2 WAR.

Signed by Houston out of the Dominican Republic in 2011, Hernández came to the Blue Jays in a July 31, 2017 deal alongside Norichika Aoki, in exchange for Francisco Liriano. He had entered that year eighth on Houston’s top prospects list, a 45 Future Value prospect whose lack of game power (40 present value at the time, 45 FV) appeared to be the biggest knock against him given a toolkit that also included an average hit tool and above-average running, fielding, and throwing. Given his standing on the leaderboard and his major league-high four home runs of at least 440 feet — headed by a 466-footer off the Marlins’ Jordan Yamamoto on August 12 — it’s safe to say that the game power developed.

Indeed, Hernández is near the top of the leaderboard in several Statcast categories. His 94.0 mph average exit velocity, 56.9% hard-hit rate and .443 xwOBA all rank in the 98th percentile, while his 19.6% barrel rate and .707 xSLG are both in the 99th percentile. He’s in the top 10 in year-to-year gains in exit velo, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate. Here’s his progression:

Teoscar Hernández’s Batted Balls, 2018-20
Year GB/FB GB% FB% EV LA Barrel  wOBA xwOBA
2018 0.83 36.4% 43.7% 91.8 16.9 15.5% .328 .347
2019 0.90 39.0% 43.2% 91.2 15.3 11.7% .325 .318
2020 0.80 31.4% 39.2% 94.0 17.2 19.6% .406 .443
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Hernández has generally hit the ball hard and in the air, but just not with the same quality of contact prior to this year. It’s not as though he’s pulling the ball more often; in fact, his 36.3% pull rate is a career low, down from 48.7% last year and 37.7% the year before. And it’s not as though he’s a tremendously disciplined hitter, either:

Teoscar Hernández Plate Discipline, 2018-20
Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Z-Contact% SwStr% BB% K%
2018 32.2% 74.3% 47.3% 77.2% 14.7% 7.8% 31.2%
2019 30.3% 72.9% 45.0% 79.1% 14.8% 9.7% 33.0%
2020 32.5% 63.7% 47.7% 76.3% 15.9% 7.5% 28.3%

Hernández, who struck out 153 times last year and 163 the year before, still has plenty of swing and miss in his game, but even while chasing balls out of the zone more often, he has cut his strikeout rate by nearly five percentage points. He’s gotten more selective by swinging at far fewer pitches in the zone, doing a better job of waiting to pounce rather than swinging at the first strike. Via MLB.com’s Keegan Matheson, here’s what he said on Saturday, before his injury came to light:

“This year, it’s part of my plan, trying to stay calm at the plate,” Hernández said. “I know they’re not going to throw me good pitches on the first pitch of many at-bats. Sometimes I go for the first pitch, but sometimes I take that first one to see the way they’re going to pitch me that day. I think it’s working out for me, and I’m going to keep doing it.”

Where Hernández had connected on the first pitch less often than in 2018-19, he’s done more damage upon making contact:

Teoscar Hernández on First Pitch, 2018-20
Year PA Contact 1st Contact 1st% xwOBA MLB xwOBA
2018 523 53 10.1% .465 .399
2019 464 49 10.6% .435 .414
2020 159 13 8.2% .629 .419
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

We’re definitely in small-sample territory here, but Hernández’s plan of attack seems to be working, in that he has three homers and a double on the first pitch this year, compared to five in nearly three times as many plate appearances last year, though he did have 11 in even more playing time the year before.

As MLB.com’s Matt Kelly observed a couple of weeks back, one other way in which Hernández has improved is by laying off breaking pitches down and away. For a right-handed batter, that means zones 9, 19, 29 and 39 of Statcast’s “Attack Zone” matrix — in the Heart, Shadow, Chase and Waste zones:

Kelly made his point about Hernández versus sliders; here I’m using curveballs as well as updating the data:

Hernandez vs. Breaking Pitches Down-and-Away
Year Swings Pitches Swing% AB H xwOBA
2018 73 233 31.3% 38 5 .102
2019 65 199 32.7% 35 3 .116
2020 11 54 20.4% 4 0 .000
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
In Statcast Attack Zones 9, 19, 29, and 39.

Hernández can’t do anything with those pitches, and so he’s swinging at (and thus making contact with) fewer of them; luckily, he’s also seeing fewer of those pitches (8.5% of all pitches this year, compared to 10.3% last year and 11.0% the year before).

Anyway, it’s still just a quarter-season of data, more or less, but Hernández’s results have been pretty convincing. Whether he’ll have much chance to flesh them out remains to be seen, as the Blue Jays have yet to indicate the severity of the strain — Grade 1 or Grade 2 — or offer a timeline for return to play. A 2017 study by former Dodgers athletic trainer Stan Conte found that hitters typically take 27 days to recover from an oblique strain, which would mean Hernández wouldn’t return until the postseason, if the Blue Jays are still in it. If it’s a mild strain, he might be back sooner, but with less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, the calendar is working against him.

The good news for the Blue Jays is that they do have some depth to help cover for his loss. Left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and center fielder Randal Grichuk have both provided plenty of offense (129 wRC+ for the former, 119 for the latter), and Biggio (126 wRC+) is now in the outfield mix as well given the August 31 arrival of versatile Jonathan Villar (though he’s hit for just a 74 wRC+ overall) and the solid play of Joe Panik (103 wRC+). Bichette, who’s been out since August 15 due to a Grade 1 sprain of his lateral collateral ligament in his right knee, has begun playing simulated games at the Blue Jays’ alternate training site in Rochester and could be back at shortstop next week; he’s probably not going to keep hitting .361/.391/.672 (182 wRC+) as he had through his first 64 PA, but his long-anticipated return could soften the blow of losing Hernández.

From a longer-term perspective, the emergence of Hernández — who will be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter — gives the Blue Jays yet another building block in a lineup that right now has seven position players 28 or under, producing at an above-average rate (100 wRC+ or higher), and under club control for at least the next three seasons (Rowdy Tellez is the one who has escaped mention here, though his own 140-wRC+ breakout shouldn’t be ignored). Their pitching may have a ways to go but such a collection should put fear into the Jays’ AL East competition. The Blue Jays have landed.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Crazy that with his FB% and pull rate both down 4% and 12% respectively that hes still crushin

Hughes
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Hughes

He’s getting great contact. His GB% is down 7%, so that with the FB% is all into LD%.

Jumping to statcast data, his topped balls are down from 29% to 17%, so even the quality of his ground balls is improving. He’s 2nd in barrels/PA% and 4th in average exit velocity.