In the first round of the 2013 MLB Draft, the Rays selected high school catcher Nick Ciuffo. Between his defensive prowess and offensive potential, the Rays are confident that Ciuffo will catch in the major leagues someday, and if things go according to plan, he will be an above-average starting catcher. But while Ciuffo is impressive, it’s another catcher in the Rays system that tantalizing evaluators the most with immense talent and signs of getting there. That player is Hudson Valley Renegades catcher Oscar Hernandez.
If you blinked, you would have missed it. In the 4th inning of this past Sunday’s game, Ben Griset‘s delivery arrived in the glove of Oscar Hernandez and it was a split-second later that he delivered a bullet to John Alexander to pick Gavin Cecchini off first base. For a moment, it was easy to forget that he was a 19 year old playing down at Short Season-A and believe that you had just seen one of the best defensive catchers in baseball making another great play. Oscar Hernandez has a long way to go on both sides of the ball, but you see flashes of his talent in almost every game he plays.
At the plate, Hernandez shows the biggest thing you want from a hitter, bat speed, making the barrel explode through the zone to drill line drives when he’s right. A big strong player at 6’0″, 196, Hernandez also shows the raw power makes you believe he could be a 30-home run threat someday. Right now, though, Hernandez is hitting .298 with only a .386 slugging percentage because everything is about his bat speed. He’s a patient hitter and appears to have some idea at the plate, but he gets fooled by breaking pitches far too often. His bat speed leads to hard-hit balls, but sometimes it seems like Hernandez gets tired of the line drive singles and aims for more power, and the results are disastrous. Hernandez tries to add too much lift in his swing and winds up adding length to it and missing plenty of pitches for whiffs and weak popups. Hernandez has to do a better job letting his power flow naturally and adding lift as the opportunities arise, not when he arbitrarily decides. But when everything is going well, you see the makings of a catcher who can hit for both average and power, and if that ever comes to fruition, Hernandez could be a special player.
The first thing to know about Hernandez defensively is his arm strength. He features a rocket for an arm and continues to get better at using at, refining his throwing mechanics and improving his accuracy. His actions just continue to get better the more he’s behind the plate and his athleticism gives him the chance to really shine. And while he has plenty of work still in store, he stands out behind the plate not just for his natural abilities but his ability to adjust. While his pickoff certainly raised the most eyebrows in his performance on Sunday, the most impressive thing may have been just an ordinary pitch in the first inning. The left-hander Griset threw him a curveball and it immediately seemed like Hernandez was in trouble. May there was a cross-up or he forgot what he called, but suddenly Griset’s big 12-to-6 curveball broke hard into the dirt and seemed primed to get past Hernandez. But at the last possible second, he got his glove down and found a way to keep the ball in front of him. Hernandez has issues defensively at times because of the same pitch recognition issues that have given him trouble at the plate. He still needs work getting a feel for how pitcher’s breaking balls will move and getting his glove there to catch them cleanly. But that ability to adjust gives you confidence that everything is slowly but surely coming together for him defensively and makes you wonder if after so many talented catchers have faltered in the Rays system, Hernandez might be different.
In his game on Sunday, Hernandez went 0 for 4 with 2 strikeouts and it was nowhere near his finest moment. With his talent, though, it doesn’t even take a good game for his abilities to become evident. Hernandez will likely need four more years in the minor leagues even in the best-case scenario and his career could come apart anywhere along the way. The more you see Hernandez though, the easier it is to believe that will come a day where everything comes together for him and the Rays find themselves with the type of starting catcher they have dreamt about since their inception.