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Teoscar Hernández and baseball's simple complexities
A little CTZ from the righty slugger.
It’s weird that there is Mariners blogdom lore. But there is. And I sound old as hell when I reference some of it, I know. But I’m going to do something here I would never do and that’s share someone’s entire post.
I’ve probably linked to it before, but I wanna share it all here so folks actually read it—because it’s so great. Also, I’m gonna tell myself if it appears in one additional space, it’s less likely to disappear into the web’s ether when Vox or SB Nation does something dumb.
So, here is a post by Jeff Sullivan as written on Lookout Landing, about free-swinging catcher Miguel Olivo.
It Dawns on Miguel Olivo
Vargas: /looks in
Vargas: /shakes head
Vargas: /shakes head
Vargas: /shakes head
Olivo: /calls for time
Olivo: /approaches mound
Olivo: What's the deal?
Vargas: I just can't figure out which pitch I want to throw here.
Olivo: Well, what's the situation? It's a 1-2 count, right?
Olivo: Then I think changeup, low, out of the zone.
Vargas: Are you sure?
Olivo: Very sure.
Vargas: Why out of the zone?
Olivo: You're ahead in the count.
Vargas: But don't I want to throw a strike?
Olivo: You can get a strike by making the hitter swing at a ball.
Vargas: Will he do that?
Olivo: He might do that.
Vargas: What if he hits it?
Olivo: That's not a big deal.
Vargas: Why isn't that a big deal?
Olivo: It's usually fine when hitters hit balls.
Vargas: How come?
Olivo: Balls are harder to hit well than strikes.
Olivo: Yeah. Think about the swing path.
Olivo: It's really difficult to make solid contact with a pitch outside of that rectangle.
Vargas: So let me get this straight:
Vargas: Hitters can hit strikes really hard.
Vargas: But they usually can't hit balls really hard.
Vargas: If they can hit them at all.
Vargas: So sometimes I should throw balls on purpose...
Vargas: ...just to mix things up, and see if the hitter will swing...
Vargas: ...because it's good for me, as a pitcher, when a hitter swings at a ball?
Vargas: Got it.
Olivo: We done here?
Vargas: We're done here.
Olivo: /walks away
Vargas: /flashes thumbs-up to dugout
Can’t beat it. I’ll never write a post that good.
If you are here from the distant future (hell, you might even be future me!), what we’ve got next is a basic examination of Teoscar Hernández and his illustration of the concept above.
Teo, as we know, as he’s always been, is a streaky hitter. We know what it looks like when he’s going right—it’s line drive after line drive. Even most of the homers look like they’d go through the wall if they weren’t going over it.
And when it’s bad, a whole lot of strikeouts and weak contact. The siren song of the slider away messes his whole world up.
Here, annotated, is what that looks like in two simple numbers—really, just one variable. It basically asks, what’s Teo’s chase rate (O-Swing%) look like when he’s going good (by wRC+) and what’s it look like when he’s very much not?
When he isn’t chasing pitches outside the strike zone, he does a ton of damage. Like Jeff’s post above hits on, it’s really tough to hit a ball—like a slider away—with any authority.
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The impact obviously extends beyond that though, as I described with Jarred Kelenic earlier this year.
Here, for example, is the two-pitch AB that resulted in Wednesday’s two-run homer.
Zach Neal, who is not good, intends to go cutter low and away and gets cutter elevated away. The cutter is his second-best pitch, behind his fastball. But with two on, knowing Teo can be aggressive, it makes sense to throw something breaking away.
It wasn’t a good pitch but it wasn’t that bad either. There are times when Hernández has been pressing, perhaps sitting dead red and he’d foul or whiff on that to a quick 0-1.
So instead of 0-1 and feeling good, maybe throwing that again, Neal for some reason goes changeup, his third most-used pitch—and it’s one breaking back into Teo’s bat path.
One pitch seems small. It is not.
Teoscar Hernández, 2023:
After 0-1: .233/.269/.436 for a .704 OPS
After 1-0: .307/.374/.523 for a .896 OPS
Teoscar Hernández, career:
After 0-1: .226.265.430 for a .695 OPS
After 1-0: .279/.371/.510 for a .881 OPS
The natural reflex is to think “Sheesh, come on bub, not that complex—just stop swinging at balls! Learn some plate discipline!”
It’s a lot more than that. It’s also the limit of my expertise, already a generous characterization.
There are many things that could lead to a batter falling into a rut of being especially bad at chasing pitches outside the zone. It can often be a mechanical issue that messes with timing, perhaps leading to a batter feeling as though they have to start their swing earlier and thus, make their swing decision earlier—with less visual data.
That’s why age does a number on guys’ O-Swing% and O-Contact%.
But it could also be mental. I think there’s something to the idea of “pressing,” even just knowing how my mental state impacts stuff like golf and pinball, that I’m better when I’m more relaxed and flowy than anxious.
There have probably been times when Teo was trying to do much, though there’s nothing we can say with certainty.
It’s just that, like with all hitters, you’re a better hitter when you’re in control of the at-bat. There’s a reason the organization’s entire on-field culture revolves around it.
If you want to win games, you have to win ABs. And if you want to win ABs, you have to win individual pitches.
Right now, Teoscar Hernández is winning pitches and forcing pitchers back into the strike zone. It’s winning him ABs—and it’s winning the Mariners some ballgames.