Tuesday, September 27, 2016

2016 BBM Summer Awards Batter of the Year: Diory Hernandez, Aguascalientes

Although the Mexican League has held a well-deserved reputation as a hitter's league for decades, 2016 was a little quieter than usual.  Sure, you had your usual LMB clubs with team batting averages topping the .300 mark, but there were only two of them this year as both Mexico City and Monterrey finished at .303. Puebla catcher Cesar Tapia led the Liga with a .386 average, but the most remarkable offensive performance of the year came from a rarely-noticed shortstop on an even less-noticed team.

Baseball was first played in Aguascalientes in 1902, but pro ball didn't arrive until 1953, when the city hosted a team in the Class A Mexican Center League for the first of 22 seasons under several nicknames (but most often known as the Tigres, after their LMB parent).  Aguascalientes entered the Mexican League in 1974 and has had a spotty record since, winning the pennant in 1978 but leaving for Nuevo Laredo in 2008, only to return in 2012.  Aguascalientes is an industrial city and state capital of 1.27 million inhabitants, and the Rieleros' ballpark (the 9,000-seat Parque Alberto Romo Chavez) will turn 80 in 2018, making it the oldest ballpark in the Liga.  Attendance is usually middle of the pack or lower, with 153,058 clicking the turnstiles over 53 games this year to rank ninth of 16 teams in a down year at the gate in most cities.  Given what he was surrounded with, Diory Hernandez' year at the plate becomes even more of a miracle.

Hernandez is the 2016 BBM Summer Batter of the Year after a remarkable season in which he hit over .400 in April before settling with a final .319 while leading the LMB with 97 RBIs.  His 23 homers tied Saltillo's Eliezer Alfonzo and Quintana Roo's Alex Liddi for third in the Liga while his 77 runs scored tied teammate Brian Burgamy for third.  Hernandez also finished in the Top Ten for hits (tied with Monterrey's Chris Roberson for 9th with 133), total bases (3rd with 224) and slugging percentage (10th at .537).  What makes those number so remarkable are the ones that preceded them.

The 32-year-old Hernandez is a native of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, a city of 191,000 known as the "Cradle of Shortstops" and home to 76 future major leaguers, including Hernandez.  A shortstop (of course), the six-footer signed with Atlanta in 2003 and kicked around the Braves' system six years before making his big league debut in 2009.  Hernandez yo-yo'd between Atlanta and AAA affiliate Gwinnett for three summers (hitting .157 in 75 games in the bigs) before splitting the 2012 campaign between Oklahoma City and Iowa of the AAA Pacific Coast League.  By this time he'd evolved into a utility infielder with a little speed and pesky hitter who'd bat anywhere between .250 and .300 or a little higher, but never hitting more than seven homers or topping 68 RBIs in a single year.

Hernandez arrived in Mexico to play at Campeche in 2013, missed 2014 altogether and opened 2015 in Veracruz before coming to Aguascalientes with no discernible difference at bat. Going into the 2016 season, he was a career .270 hitter in the minors with just 46 homers and 382 ribbies over 914 games covering 13 seasons. His 2016 output with the Railroaders increased his career homer total by 50 percent and his RBI count by another 25 percent.

Aguascalientes missed the postseason as usual, coming in sixth in the LMB North at 53-58, 19 games out of first place and 9 out of the final berth with veteran catcher Saul Soto taking over down the stretch as the Liga's first player-manager since Willie Romero with Yucatan in 2012.  In other words, chaos as usual.  But none of that takes away from Diory Hernandez' miracle year.