The 2015 Miami Marlins have a number of players who could go one way or another and sway the fate of the team. Of those players, none is more polarizing than shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. Hechavarria may have the largest gap between supporters and detractors among folks who talk about baseball. Purists see a slick-fielding shortstop with deficiencies at the plate, some of which improved in a better 2014 campaign. The stat-leaning folks saw a player with continuing issues with the bat and a questionable profile defensively, based on defensive statistics that have not necessarily agreed with each other.
Which side is right? It's impossible for us to know for sure, and that is what makes the 2015 campaign for Hechavarria so intriguing and what makes him a candidate for a 2015 Marlins Key to Success.
Much of Hechavarria's improved from 2013 to 2014, but one can hardly gain confidence from that. Fans who don't often delve into the numbers saw a guy who added 50 points in batting average and drew a trendline through the roof or at least assumed that the improvements would stick. However, simple regression to the mean indicates that very few players could continue hitting .227 and stay a Major League roster for very long. Essentially, part of the increase in Hechavarria's batting average and subsequent batting line came from him being not really as bad as a .227 hitter. It turns out that that's really hard to do; only 12 qualified players have hit less than that mark since 2012, and pretty much every single one is close to or out of a big-league job.
The key to evaluating Hechavarria's bat was to see if he had made any strides in terms of getting on base or adding pop to his game, and neither of those things happened. He dropped his walk rate slightly and hit extra-base hits on 22 percent of his knocks versus 20 percent in 2013. He upped his ground ball rate even more, depending even more on either liners or shots through the infield. To his credit, he did bump his line drive rate and hit fewer popups last year too, both indicating that he may been making better contact with the ball.
With all that work, however, he was still among the worst regular hitters in baseball, and he is likely to be that again in 2015. All of his projectability depends on your view of his defense. The numbers told different stories; zone-based metrics like UZR saw him as a negative, worth between three and 12 (!) runs below average. However, at least one non-zone metric, specifically Baseball Prospectus's FRAA, saw Hechavarria as a plus defender last year, one who was a bit worse than Andrelton Simmons. That better matches up with scouting views of Hechavarria, who certainly looks the part of a strong defender but appears to also have lapses on easier balls in play.
The Optimist View
Your view of Hechavarria is going to depend mostly on where you are on his defensive spectrum. The optimist sees a guy who probably is a fantastic defender, someone who is athletic and smooth and capable of getting to a lot more balls than expected. You might say that the zone-based metrics may be judging Hechavarria's plays as easier in quality than they may actually be. Somehow, those metrics are missing something on Hechavarria's game.
So what's the optimistic view on the Marlins shortstop? There is no shortstop in the game better than Simmons, but he has averaged something along the lines of 25 runs better than average per season by zone metrics. If Hechavarria was even 60 percent of Simmons, he would be a Gold Glove-caliber +15 run defender. This is the absolute limit of positivity one can have for Hechavarria without matching him with Simmons.
What about on the offensive side? Simmons provides a similar profile for the type of player Hechavarria is, minus the power. Both players have weak control of the strike zone, and while Simmons strikes out less, he does not appear to make as much solid contact on line drives like Hechavarria does. If Hechavarria can maintain the production he had last season at the plate, he would be a -10 run hitter.
The grand sum of such a player would be a nearly three-win player. That is the type of guy the Marlins are envisioning when they attempted and failed to sign Hechavarria to a long-term extension as a centerpiece of this team.
The Pessimist View
Of course, the downside is that Hechavarria is not the above guy. He was a finalist for the Gold Glove award last season, but there is enough disagreement between various defensive sources, scouting and statistical, to shed some questions on his skill. At this point, with the input of defensive statistics, it would be difficult to name Hechavarria as a +15 run defender.
At the same time, having watched Hechavarria play, it is hard to make him seem like a terrible defender. The zone-based stats have him at about six runs below average per season defensively. If we include some of our known scouting information, maybe we can prop that up to three runs below average per year and set that his baseline.
On the offensive side, things can definitely get worse. Hechavarria was the beneficiary of a .323 BABIP last season, and while there were some reasons for that to have occurred, not all of it is likely to be repeated. If Hechavarria hits his career batting line (.251/.286/.331, .272 wOBA), which is not far from unexpected, he would be worth 18 runs below average over a full season.
How good is that player? That type of player is essentially a replacement-level player. If Hechavarria is not a good defender, there is a very good chance his known difficulty at the plate would sink his season. However, the difference between a truly optimistic and a pessimistic view is as large as three wins, signaling just why Hechavarria is so polarizing. Depending on his "true" skill level, he could be a huge swing factor for the 2015 Marlins.