Shell yeah: Teoscar Hernández is the Dodgers' always-smiling, seed-throwing motivator

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 21, 2024: Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Teoscar Hernandez.
Dodgers outfielder Teoscar Hernández, right, throws sunflower seeds to celebrate Andy Pages' three-run homer during a win over the New York Mets in April. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The $23.5 million that the Dodgers are paying Teoscar Hernández this season isn’t just for the power and run production he provides, his ability to play the corner outfield spots and his boundless energy and enthusiasm on the field and in the clubhouse.

It’s seed money.

Whenever a Dodgers player hits a home run, Hernández showers the batter with sunflower seeds as he returns to the dugout, a tradition the 31-year-old from the Dominican Republic with the bushy beard and toothy grin started in Toronto a few years ago and brought with him to Seattle in 2023 and Los Angeles this season.

And if Hernández goes deep — like he did when his dramatic three-run blast to right-center field capped a seven-run ninth inning in an 11-9 come-from-behind victory over the Colorado Rockies in Coors Field on Tuesday night — another player will grab a fistful or two of seeds and toss them at the slugger.

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“This game is hard enough — it brings too much stress — so you have to have fun,” said Hernández, who signed a one-year deal in January after the Mariners did not extend a qualifying offer last winter. “I know hitting a home run is good, but this is just a little extra motivation for the guy who hits it and for the other players.”

Hernández, who played six seasons (2017-2022) for the Blue Jays, doesn’t remember the exact moment he started the tradition because it was a spur-of-the-moment thing.

“Everybody had something to celebrate the homer, but we didn’t have anything at that time,” he said. “There was a bucket with like 20 bags of seeds in the dugout, so I just grabbed one and threw it in the air, and then everybody started doing it.”

There is a proper technique to the sunflower-seed shower, though, one Hernández had to school his Blue Jays teammates on.

Dodgers outfielder Teoscar Hernández is hit with sunflower seeds after hitting a solo home run.
Dodgers outfielder Teoscar Hernández is hit with sunflower seeds after hitting a solo home run against the Atlanta Braves in May. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“Some guys at the beginning, they misunderstood, and they were throwing them hard,” Hernández said. “Sometimes you get them in the eyes, and sometimes you get them straight in the mouth. The key is to throw the seeds up and let them walk through them.”

Mookie Betts was the first Dodger to receive the sunflower-seed treatment after he hit the team’s first homer of the season, a two-run shot in a March 21 loss to the San Diego Padres in South Korea. The celebration quickly took root.

“I’ve seen a lot of home run celebrations, but I had never seen a sunflower-seed shower before,” Dodgers infielder Miguel Rojas said. “He started doing it the [second] game of the season with Mookie, and he’s been doing it ever since. It makes us feel really good. It makes everything more enjoyable. And that’s kind of what this team is about.”

It’s what Hernández has always been about. When Hernández hit a two-run double in the 11th inning of a 2-1 win over the New York Yankees on June 7 and a game-breaking grand slam in the eighth inning of an 11-3 win the following night in Yankee Stadium, the back-page headline of Sunday’s New York Post read: “Oscar the Grouch.”

But if Hernández were a Sesame Street character, he’d be Guy Smiley.

“I’m always laughing. I rarely get mad,” Hernández said. “You can go around and ask people, ‘Have you ever seen Teo mad?’ I don’t think they’re gonna say yes. Everybody knows the way I play on the field and act off the field. I’m the same person. I just like to bring joy and happiness to everybody so they can feel good and relax.”

Hernández’s exuberance seems to have rubbed off on his teammates, and his attitude and approach seem suited for pressure-packed situations, as he showed during the much-hyped series pitting a pair of historic rivals and potential World Series foes in Yankee Stadium two weekends ago.

Hernández went six for 12 with three homers, two doubles and nine RBIs in the three games against the Yankees.

“Teo was on another level [in New York], on the biggest stage of the season so far, and it makes you excited, because that’s where we want to go,” Rojas said. “We want to get to the playoffs, to the World Series, where the stage is going to be even bigger. And we have a guy who can put the team on his shoulders.”

The Dodgers don’t necessarily need Hernández to carry them in October — they’ve added two-time American League valuable player Shohei Ohtani to a star-studded lineup that includes Freddie Freeman and Will Smith and is waiting for dynamic leadoff man Betts and slugger Max Muncy to return from injuries.

Dodgers outfielder Teoscar Hernandez throws sunflower seeds at teammate Mookie Betts.
Dodgers outfielder Teoscar Hernández throws sunflower seeds at teammate Mookie Betts during a game against the Giants in April. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

But after their bats went cold in National League Division Series losses to the Padres in 2022 and the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2023, it can’t hurt to have another big bat with the potential to thrive on an October stage.

“You feel the adrenaline, and you obviously get up for those kinds of games, when you play in the big moments, the big situations,” Hernández said. “But I try to be the same guy, to be myself, and to not put pressure on myself. I’m not trying to do too much, because that’s when everything starts to go the opposite way that you want it to go.”

Hernández, who entered Friday night’s game against the Angels with a .261 average, .834 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 18 homers, 16 doubles and a team-high 54 RBIs, has been solid in the clutch, batting .225 (20 for 89) with an .823 OPS, six homers, five doubles and one triple with runners in scoring position.

He’s batting .308 (four for 13) with a 1.154 OPS, two homers, one double and 12 RBIs with the bases loaded, his other grand slam coming in the sixth inning of a 5-1 win at San Diego on May 11.

“I’ve said it before, he reminds me a little bit of Manny Ramirez in the sense that when guys are on base, certainly with runners in scoring position, he’s even better,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We’ve seen that all year from him. He’s sneaky been the MVP of our club.”

Teoscar Hernández hits a two-run home run against the Texas Rangers on June 11.
Teoscar Hernández hits a two-run home run against the Texas Rangers on June 11. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Hernández hit two homers and drove in four runs in a 6-3 win over St. Louis on March 29 homered and drove in all three runs of a 3-1 win over Miami on May 8. He was named NL player of the week after hitting .260 (nine for 25) with a 1.389 OPS, four homers, 10 RBIs, three doubles and six runs in six games from June 3-9.

“He’s been big, especially with Max being out,” right fielder Jason Heyward said, referring to Muncy, who has been sidelined since May 16 because of a rib-cage strain. “He had some big hits to start the season, some big at-bats, some big homers for us. No doubt, he’s helped hold things down.”

The Dodgers thought the right-handed-hitting Hernández would benefit from a change of scenery. Hernández hit just .217 with a .643 OPS, 12 homers and 44 RBIs in Seattle’s pitcher-friendly T-Mobile Park last season and .295 with an .830 OPS, 14 homers and 49 RBIs on the road.

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“When you look back at last year, I was hitting the ball hard, but everybody knows how the ball travels at T-Mobile Park,” Hernández said. “Now, I’m hitting the ball hard and getting the production that I expect.”

While his plate discipline will never rival that of Yankees star Juan Soto, Hernández has been more selective than he was in 2023, when he hit .258 with a .741 OPS, 26 homers, 29 doubles, 93 RBIs, 211 strikeouts–third most in baseball — and just 38 walks.

His 92 strikeouts this season are the fifth-most in the major leagues, but he’s walked 27 times, lowering his strikeout rate from 31.1% last season to 28.4% this season and boosting his walk rate from 5.6% in 2023 to 8.4% in 2024.

According to Fangraphs, Hernández’s 29.3% chase rate, the percentage of pitches he swings at outside the strike zone, is down from last year’s 34.5%.

Teoscar Hernández watches from the dugout during a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Teoscar Hernández watches from the dugout during a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium on May 20. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“They’re going down, little by little,” Hernández said of his strikeout and chase rates. “I think it’s experience, understanding everything you need to do to get better and to execute a game plan. One of my goals for this year is to bring the strikeouts down and increase the walks so I can get on base more. That way, I can help the team get better.”

Hernández’s productive bat has been a constant in the middle of the lineup — he and Freeman are the only two Dodgers who have started all 77 games — and his effervescent smile rarely takes a night or an at-bat off.

“I’ve seen him get frustrated about chasing a pitch, striking out in a big spot or making a mistake in the field, but he goes back to normal real quick, faster than anybody that I’ve ever seen,” Rojas said. “Then he’ll get excited when he does something really good for the team. That’s why it’s important to have a guy like Teoscar. He brings the energy.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.