Jan Hernandez not frustrated by struggles at the plate

It’s an innate ability Jan Hernandez possesses. Each day is its own. There’s no yesterday. There’s no tomorrow.

When he steps into the batting cage every day for Crosscutters’ batting practice, it’s a brand new day. It’s an opportunity to learn. It’s an opportunity to make adjustments.

And for Hernandez, it’s an opportunity to do it with a clear mind.

“Sometimes it’s difficult because I’m 19 years old and I’m young,” Hernandez, the Cutters’ third baseman, said following batting practice on a dreary, humid day in Williamsport. “I want everything to be good. I want my hitting to be good. I want my fielding to be good. I don’t want to make errors and strike out a lot. But I’m working hard and keeping strong.”

Hernandez opened Williamsport’s brief two-game homestand Wednesday night hitting just .191, not exactly a favorable mark for a player who was selected in the third round of the 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. The native of Puerto Rico never starts a day with his head down, though. He’s always in high spirits.

There’s an intense focus which shows up on his face just about the time batting practice starts every day. He jumps at the opportunity to take swings in the cage. He takes his work defensively quite seriously, but there’s a different pep in his step when it comes time to hit.

After all, his ability with a bat in his hands is primarily what made him the top prospect in Puerto Rico a year ago, and the first student to be drafted out of the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy.

There’s no questioning the raw tools of a player like Hernandez. Take 15 minutes to watch his rounds of batting practice and the effortless power is evident. He tends to get in trouble when he tries to exert too much effort to drive the baseball.

Watch him throw across the diamond from third base and he has maybe the best arm of the Crosscutters’ position player. He’s got the athleticism of a gymnast, adept at making diving plays to both the glove side and arm side with relative ease.

But the hit tool just hasn’t been there for Hernandez this year to let his power show through. His five home runs are third-best on the team behind only Jiandido Tromp and Rhys Hoskins despite his hitting struggles, but four of those came within the first month of the season, and he’s hit only one since July 10.

For all those struggles, you would imagine Hernandez to be frustrated. But he sees the big picture. He sees his year in Williamsport as a stepping stone to where he wants to eventually be.

And a learning experience? It’s definitely been that.

“I’m not frustrated. I just keep focused and work on my hitting approach,” Hernandez said. “I need to stay focused in the middle of the field. I’m not frustrated because all things happen with a purpose. I’m good. And some day I will be good.”

Phillies minor league hitting coordinator Andy Tracy echoes the same sentiments. In the midst of a funk last month which saw Hernandez’s batting average fall into the 180s, Tracy was asked what he made of Hernandez’s struggles.

Tracy pursed his lips and said, “Don’t even worry about it. In two years, Jan is the guy you’re going to be talking about.”

That comment came at the tail end of a four-day period in which Tracy and Hernandez worked extensively on Hernandez’s approach. Hernandez has always been a dead pull hitter, and you could see it in his swings at times as his batting average fell.

So he and Tracy brought his focus to the middle and right side of the field. Tracy, leaning on the hitting shell at Bowman Field, would constantly preach to Hernandez about shooting the ball over the second baseman’s head.

After playing just once in seven days in late July as he worked with Tracy, Hernandez got back into the lineup and posted a 2 for 4 day against Mahoning Valley, and followed it up the next day with a 3 for 4 outing against Batavia. They were only the fourth and fifth times this year Hernandez posted multi-hit games.

He has since added another 2 for 4 effort with a double and RBI against Batavia.

“Andy said to me that I have talent. I have quick hands and huge power. If I focus on the middle of the field, we’ll see what happens,” Hernandez said. “That’s helped me in a couple games. He said to me that I’m going to hit 20 or 25 home runs in the big leagues if I stay focused on the middle of the field and hit the ball hard.”

The biggest adjustment left for Hernandez to make is on breaking balls. He tends to get geared up for fastballs, only to swing weakly at breaking balls. He knows it’s a problem.

The breaking balls and change-ups he sees so often have led to his 36 percent strikeout rate. It’s an alarming rate, one which he and Tracy are well-aware of. But it’s also one they think he can improve on.

“I’m so young. This is all a learning experience for me,” Hernandez said. “The breaking balls, the fielding, the approach. You’ll see next year, I’ll be a lot better.”