Oscar Hernandez emerged from the home dugout at Hunnicutt Field on opening day to cheers from the fans in Princeton, West Virginia, who already knew who he was. The Rays' rookie-league affiliate kicked off their season on Tuesday of last week when Hernandez, the hyped-up 18-year-old catcher out of Venezuela, made his professional debut.
Hernandez quickly became a popular name in the Rays organization last year after he broke out in the Venezuelan Summer League with an incredible .402 batting average and 21 home runs in only 239 at-bats. People took notice and wanted to know more about who this player was and what he could do. Questions were raised about what kind of competition he was facing in Venezuela, and how he would do against American pitching. The Rays wanted answers to these questions too, so they decided to take the next step in his development by sending him to The United States, where he was assigned to extended spring training in Florida. After extended spring training, he was sent to play for the Princeton Rays.
This whole process happened really fast, and Hernandez had to adjust and become acclimated to an entirely new country and language in a short span of time. At his young age, it is not easy to make such a transition.
"The culture is different," Hernandez told me through hitting coach Reinaldo Ruiz, who translated from Spanish. "I'm working on it every day." Hernandez often asks a multilingual coach to translate, but his English is improving and he even answers some questions in English.
In the waiting period between the end of Hernandez's breakout season in Venezuela and his professional debut in America, his name began to float around the blogosphere more often. His statistics prompted fans to rave about his offensive potential. It almost seemed as if they forgot that he was a catcher as they became more focused on what he can bring offensively. The one side of his game that nobody really talked about was his defense, and it turns out that is where his main focus seems to be.
"I really have been working on my defense," said Hernandez. "I want to work on my blocking and my throws to second base, and I want to be smart all the time behind the plate."
In the six home games the Princeton Rays have played so far this season, Hernandez has struggled at times with his blocking. That is fixable. However, his throws to second base are right on target – something you cannot teach – and he has framed pitches really well. I watched the catchers take part in a pre-game drill where they had to lay on their stomach while a pitching machine shot balls sky high for them to hop up and catch. One of the other catchers on the Princeton roster, Omar Narvaez, is also from Venezuela and played with Hernandez for one year there.
Princeton manager Michael Johns has high praise for Hernandez after watching him play so far this season. "Oscar is really good, he plays like a veteran," he said. "He's a good receiver and you will see him throw the ball well." In the opening day game, Hernandez gunned out a runner at a second base.
Blake Snell, a highly touted pitcher who was selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, made his debut on the same day as Hernandez when he pitched 5 shutout innings and allowed only one hit. Snell has been impressed with Hernandez behind the plate and said that he helps him out on the mound. "Oscar is great behind the plate, so I felt good," Snell explained. "It did not seem like Oscar's first professional game because he looked really good."
To get to this point, Hernandez worked tirelessly in the gym during the offseason. He knew he had his work cut out for him in America, especially with better competition. "I was working a lot, especially physically, to get stronger to come here because I knew it would be a long season," he recalled. "I had to prepare myself both physically and mentally."
Now that the season has started, Hernandez has a bit more to prepare for before games. As any catcher will say, communication between the catcher and pitcher is as important as any part of a pre-game routine. "Every single day, I talk and I work with the pitchers before the game," he explained. From the way Snell talked about Hernandez, it seems he is right on the same page with his pitchers.
Hernandez's preparation and dedication to baseball can be traced back to his early childhood, when his father introduced him to the game at the age of 5. Ever since then, he has made it his life. "My dad is a big fan of baseball, and I would always work with him when I was little. After that, I fell in love with the game and now I am passionate about it."
Indeed, he is. During a rain delay last week, most of the players were hanging inside around the dugout area. Hernandez, on the other hand, was the only player out of the dugout as he was signing autographs for children who stuck around during the delay in hopes of getting their ball signed. He kept himself loose and was anxiously waiting on the edge of the dirt for the game to resume.
So far in this early portion of the season, Hernandez is still getting a feel for American competition. Offensively, he has had some big plays – including a couple home runs and some key two-out RBI base hits – but he still has a long way to go and he is the first to admit that.
"The level of play is much different here and the pitches are better," said Hernandez, who bats left handed. "I am working on hitting the other way because I have a tendency to pull the ball. I'm trying to stay relaxed at the plate."
A few hours after my interview with Hernandez in the dugout, he walked up to the plate and dug into the batter's box. With a wide and slightly open stance, he waited for the pitch. Keeping in mind everything he told me about being patient and going to the opposite field, I watched his approach at the plate.
The pitch was delivered and he took a huge stride, turning on the ball and pulling it to left field. The line drive shot was absolutely crushed, as it cleared the fence for a home run in no time. On paper, the blast looked great – home runs are never a bad thing.
To the dedicated Hernandez, though, pulling the ball just meant he has something more to work on.
Matt Tracy is the Princeton beat writer for Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewtracy.
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