The book on Yadiel Hernandez entering the 2021 season was pretty straightforward. He could hit fastballs, though he needed to prove he could hit off-speed pitches to have a chance of sticking in the big leagues, probably as a bench player. And if he was going to have any chance of playing the outfield with any regularity, he was going to have to take major strides in improving his defense.
So, what have we learned all these months later about the 33-year-old with zero major league experience prior to last September? He has proven adept enough at hitting to warrant a spot in the Nationals’ regular lineup. And he’s improved just enough in the field to not leave himself as a full-blown liability in left field.
“You know what, he’s done a lot better out there from the beginning of the year,” manager Davey Martinez said during his Zoom session with reporters prior to Monday night’s game in Colorado. “We had these conversations in spring training that if he’s going to play in the big leagues, it’s not just one-sided. He’s got to play defense, especially in the National League. There’s no DH here most of the time, so he needs to go out there and learn to play left field and also right field.”
And Hernandez has done the best he could to make himself into a serviceable left fielder. Nobody’s going to confuse him for a Gold Glove Award contender, but he has managed to hold his own.
FanGraphs rates Hernandez 22nd out of 39 players with at least 300 innings in left field this season in all-around defense. He does, however, rate 35th out of those 39 with minus-6 Defensive Runs Saved (tied with former teammate Kyle Schwarber, for what that’s worth).
Hernandez doesn’t always look smooth in the field, but the improvement has been noticeable. And some of that is perhaps attributable to the work he put in from center field during batting practice in Rochester during his brief demotion earlier this season.
Center field? Yes, though not in any actual games. Only for workouts, despite what Hernandez told manager Matt LeCroy upon arriving in Rochester earlier in the summer.
“I remember when we sent him down, I told him to take some balls in center field and work on your jumps,” Martinez said. “I got a phone call from Matt LeCroy, and he went and told Matt that I wanted him to play center field. I say: ‘No, Matt, I want him to work in center field. He’ll play the corners. But I just want him to work on his jumps, because there are a lot more balls during batting practice in center field.’ He did that, and he has gotten better.”
So, don’t be looking for some surprise appearance in center field from Hernandez during the season’s final week.
But don’t be surprised when you continue to see him starting in left field, having convinced the Nationals coaching staff he can more than handle himself there.
“The good thing about Yadi is, he asks a lot of questions all the time about where to play as far as left-handed hitters, guys that might slash the ball down the left field line. Can he cheat a little more that way?” Martinez said. “My thing with him is, wherever we tell you to play is a starting point. If you think the guy’s a little bit later, and you need to cheat a little more over towards the line, then go ahead. And he’s actually been pretty good about that.”