“I worked hard to get to this level,” Yadiel Hernández told reporters after a 2 for 4, two RBI game on April 24th in New York.
“Worked hard” doesn’t quite capture the difficulty of the path that the 33-year-old outfielder took the majors.
Following an impressive six-year career in the Cuban National Series, where the Matanzas, Cuba-born outfielder posted a combined .324/.449/.487 line, Hernández made the decision to defect to the United States in 2015. He signed for $200,000 with the Nationals in 2016, and he debuted in the majors with Washington (after three years in the minors, over which he put up a combined .301/.385/.503 line), in 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign.
Coming into 2021, however, there was a crowded outfield in the nation’s capital, with Hernández on the outside looking in, but given opportunities to play after a COVID outbreak, and an injury to Juan Soto, he’s made the most of his chances to contribute.
“The main thing is continuing to work, you know, it’s one of those things that I focused a lot in the offseason, improve on my defense, improve on whatever the team needs me to do to obviously help them win up here, whether it’s come off the bench and play sparingly, whatever it is, I worked harder at it and increased my focus to help stay up here and help the team win at all means possible.”
Hernández’s multi-hit game on April 24th was the first of four consecutive multi-hit games he strung together going into Saturday’s matchup with the Miami Marlins in Nationals Park, over which he was 9 for 15 (.600/.611/.800) with a home run, two walks, and two Ks.
His success at the plate and improved defense have raised questions about what to do with the outfielder once Juan Soto (on the IL with a left shoulder strain but throwing again as he’s building towards a return) is back in the lineup.
Manager Davey Martinez, of course, is not going to indulge in speculation, but he and the club’s brass have to make a decision. He talked before Saturday’s game about Hernandez and his success at the plate these last few weeks.
“He’s done so well since we’ve had him here and I talk about him often because the guy can hit. He’s hit everywhere he’s been,” Martinez said.
“Until we get Soto back, which hopefully is soon, we’ve got decisions to make obviously, so, but what I like right now, [Hernández is] getting a chance to play, he’s batting third in our lineup, and he’s doing really well. So hopefully he continues to swing the bat for us and helps us win ballgames right now. Like I said, [GM] Mike [Rizzo] and I will have to sit down when the time comes and make a decision how we can best utilize him and keep him going. But right now he’s getting an opportunity to pretty much play every day, and he’s doing well.”
A veteran who is technically a rookie in Major League Baseball, Hernández has endeared himself to his coaches and teammates with his hard work, and also, his manager said, his personality.
“Being around these guys all the time, especially having him in Spring Training, he loves the game, and he loves to play,” Martinez said, when asked what, if anything, he’s learned about Hernández that he didn’t know before this season.
“He’s very fond of his teammates, and believe it or not, he’s funny, and he enjoys what he does and he loves it, so the guys love having him around. He’s a good person. Like I said, he competes every day. He gets really frustrated when he doesn’t get a hit, but I have to tell him all the time, I say, ‘Hey, it’s about having good at bats, and if you have consistent good at bats, your hits will come, don’t worry about it.’ So, and you can see that in him, but he gets really on himself when he feels like he should got a hit, or hit the ball hard, and I have to remind him, ‘Forget about that one, you have another at bat coming up in a couple innings, be ready for that one,’ so, but he’s very competitive. And you talk to him and he’s very confident, and he feels like every time he swings the bat, he should hit the ball hard, and he believes that, and that’s a good thing.”
How common is it for a veteran to put that kind of pressure on himself? Pretty common.
“Honestly, it’s more common than you think,” Martinez, the former big league outfielder said.
“A lot of these guys, they get frustrated when they feel like they got a ball they could hit and they don’t hit it. I was one of those guys all the time where you don’t want to miss those pitches, you know, and he’s the same way. But the good thing is that he gets right back in — and whether he fouls one off, he gets back in there and works a good at bat.
“What I’m impressed about too is he’s another guy — he’s not a young guy, as we all know, but he’s learning, he’s learning about playing in the major leagues and how important it is — he talks a lot about just swinging at strikes, and if they’re going to walk him, he’ll take his walks. And he’s learning that, so that’s really encouraging for us, that he understands what he needs to do every time he goes up there.”
And every time he does go up to the plate, the rest of the Nationals keep a close eye on his at bats.
“Every at bat it seems like everybody in the dugout is watching,” teammate Josh Bell said.
“You don’t want to miss one of his swings. Even his takes, you’re like, ‘Oooh, he’s on.’ So it’s definitely fun to watch.”
“He’s a special player, special hitter,” Bell added. “It seems like he commands the zone so well. And his mishits are on a line. I feel like we’ve always known he’s been a guy that’s hit in every league that he’s been in, so it’s no surprise that he’s having success here with us. And it’s fun to watch. You watch his work day, everything is so clean, he doesn’t really pull off balls, he stays on the barrel for the most part, and you can see it like in the at bats.
“Pitchers are wanting him to fish for balls that are almost strikes and he doesn’t, and then when they throw a ball over the plate, he makes them pay. So it’s definitely fun to play behind.”
Bell said before he joined the organization in a trade this winter, he wasn’t familiar with Hernández, but when they got to Spring Training, it didn’t take long to notice someone special.
“It took like a couple of days. Everyone’s like, ‘This guy rakes. Wait. Wait until you see it.’ And then you watch the batting practice and you see some of the balls that he hits out, you’re like, ‘Man, that ball is a good pitch and he’s doing damage on it.’ So it’s definitely fun to watch.”
“We’re all watching, we all know. “I feel like game recognizes game and he’s got a lot of it.”