While a couple of teenagers, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Juan Soto, were putting on an impressive hitting display Thursday night at FNB Field, 30-year-old Yadiel Hernandez went 2-for-4 including his team-leading seventh home run of the season.
For those unfamiliar with his back story, Hernandez defected to the United States in June 2015 when he left the Cuban national team as they competed in North Carolina. Although eligible to sign with any team the next April, the outfielder didn’t agree to a deal until the following September when he inked a minor league deal with the Nationals organization including a reported $200,000 signing bonus.
So it was after a year and a half’s worth of rust, Hernandez played the entire 2017 season for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators. The left-handed batter started the year slowly but as the weather turned nicer, he made up for lost time on the diamond with one of the better second halves in the Eastern League. In 49 games after the All-Star break, Hernandez slashed .354/.429/.549 with seven homers and 11 doubles besting his first-half production of five home runs and 10 doubles over 22 less games.
But despite the strong second half, Hernandez never would have fooled you into thinking he was a prototypical corner outfielder with power to spare. His 12 long balls in 2017 were the most of his career as he failed to hit more than 10 in a season while playing in his native Cuba.
While looking at his early season success, I came across his spray chart which is unlike any I think I’ve ever seen before.
That’s right. All seven of his home runs this season are the opposite way. Even when he wasn’t hitting them out at this clip last year, his gap power was always into the left-centerfield slot.
In looking for comparisons, it isn’t easy. Hitting coach Brian Rupp brings up Derek Jeter as the best known guy being able to stay inside the ball like this. Senators’ broadcaster Terry Byrom mentions Wade Boggs pounding doubles off the Green Monster. But Hernandez is still also just a 30-year-old guy who hasn’t seen a pitch above Double-A in the United States.
As the Nationals’ roster continues to be beset by injuries and they struggle to find consistent production from the outfielders, one can’t help to wonder what the plan is for Hernandez. He doesn’t have much left to prove at this level, so is his approach and strengths at the plate something he can rely on at Triple-A and beyond?
“It’s sustainable to a certain level,” Rupp said. “When you start getting guys who can really get the ball inside to try and speed him up, he’ll have a tougher time. But it’s also really hard for guys to get the ball inside consistently.
“But the one thing he does well is that if they make a soft mistake, he’ll hit it hard up the middle. He’s taking the fastball away and anything slow over the plate he can handle. It’s just that little tunnel (underneath his hands), if they can get it there he’s going to have a tough time.”