The Miami Marlins were patient, insisting that Adeiny Hechavarria was going to pan out as a dominant defender, even if he never developed a bat. Even though the numbers never suggested that he was a great defender, the eyes still pointed to someone who had obvious talent, and the overall thought process is that Hechavarria was something like an average player who looked flashier than he was as a defender.
Flash forward one year later, and the Marlins appear to be vindicated in their decision, as Hechavarria has been recognized as one of 13 players who might win the Esurance MLB Defensive Player of the Year award. The award is voted on by a quintet of parties, including fans, media, front office personnel, MLB retirees, and the Society for American Baseball Research, better known as SABR (the acronym on which the term "sabermetrics" is based).
Here are the other nominees.
Hechavarria is up against some tough competition. Other Best Defensive Player nominees are: Nolan Arenado (Rockies); Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar(Royals); Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford (Giants); Yadier Molina (Cardinals); Kevin Kiermaier (Rays); Kevin Pillar and Josh Donaldson (Blue Jays); Andrelton Simmons(Braves); and Manny Machado (Orioles).
Many of those are well-recognized industry names with established reputations, like Yadier Molina, Manny Machado, and Andrelton Simmons. Others are newer names to the game with fantastic stats behind them, like Kevin Kiermaier and Kevin Pillar. The majority seem to be worthy candidates for the award, but can Hechavarria stack up to them?
The answer in 2015 appears to be an emphatic "yes!"
Hechavarria has had arguably the best season among his shortstop counterparts.
|Player, 2015||Balls in Zone||RZR*||OOZ/300 BIZ**||UZR||DRS||FRAA|
*Range Zone Rating = Plays made in zone / Balls in Zone
**Out of Zone plays made per 300 BIZ
This is an impressive list of players, and for Hechavarria to be in their company numerically is awesome. It is hard to differentiate the day-to-day tweaks that have made Hechavarria a better defender, but such a drastic change in performance probably means that some amount of this change is real. It may not be true that Hechavarria was really 16 runs better than an average shortstop, but it may be closer to the truth than we figured he was last season. The only player who, based on these numbers, looks superior to Hechavarria this season is Crawford.
That's right: not even the great Andrelton Simmons, who is the gold standard for defensive excellence at shortstop, clearly outpaces Hechavarria in 2015.
Where has Hechavarria improved? He has an edge in terms of turning double plays on all defenders but Simmons. UZR has Hechavarria second in all of baseball with a little more than a run above average in double play-turning with his partner-in-crime, the surprisingly defensively-talented Dee Gordon. He is behind only Simmons, though DRS has him more middle-of-the-pack in this category.
Errors have also been a benefit for Hechavarria. His nine errors in 2015 is among the best figures in baseball so far this year. Of the other shortstop contenders, only one had a better errors rate than Hechavarria.
|Player, 2015||Balls in Zone||Errors||Errors/300 BIZ**|
Aboutt the only thing Hechavarria (and Simmons, honestly) did not do that Crawford did was get to balls out of the zone. While the Marlins shortstop cleaned up his zone well, posting the best Range Zone Rating among qualified shortstops in baseball, he failed to get out and make those out-of-zone spectacular plays well to his left or right. Even with the supposed position changing that Perry Hill and the Fish have employed to make things easier on Hechavarria, he still rated with the fourth lowest out-of-zone rate when based on the number of balls in zone seen. He was only ahead of Simmons and known zone-restricted guys like Jhonny Peralta and Starlin Castro.
How does Hechavarria differ now than he did before? At least the numbers say that things looked drastically worse in the years before this season.
|Hechavarria, per 300 BIZ||RZR||Err||OOZ||UZR||DRS||FRAA|
According to the defensive metrics, Hechavarria ranged from being an average to a bad defender in those years, and you can kind of see why. He cleared a lot fewer balls in his zone of responsibility in 2013 and 2014 as compared to 2015. Rather than gaining range this year, it seems Hechavarria has gained sure-handedness and efficiency in the zone. It could be that these changes in pre-play positioning have put Hechavarria in a better spot to utilize his talents. It sounds as though Hill was aware that Hechavarria had a harder time moving to his left in the past, and shifting him over towards the second base gap more consistently may be helping the shortstop make a play or two every other game that he was otherwise missing.
And really, when you think about it, that is the difference. That is why it is so hard to differentiate a good defender from an average or mediocre one. You and I do not have the powerful mental capacity, even as daily viewing fans, to see that Hechavarria is making those one or two extra plays a week. The difference in plays made in zone between the 2015 and 2013-2014 versions, in 300 balls in zone, is about 16 extra plays made. Let's say those 16 plays are buried in 120 games. That means that Hechavarria is making one extra play every 7.5 games. Can you spot one extra pseudo-routine or marginal play every week and categorize the difference? I'm not a scout, I'm pretty sure I cannot do that.
That is why having the defensive numbers now on Hechavarria's side is a big boost to his Gold Glove-caliber argument. Supporters in the past were telling detractors to "watch the games." Watching the games shows a talented shortstop, no doubt, but the numbers can pick up differences that maybe you and I cannot see. The numbers can also be wrong and see differences that are not really there, but when the data is combined, the picture becomes more clear. The picture in 2015 looks like a fantastic season for Hechavarria on the field.