The Miami Marlins have had unwavering confidence in Adeiny Hechavarria over the last three years despite poor offensive production. This is in large part due to their confidence in his defensive capabilities, backed mostly by scouting observations of his skills. There was no denying that Hechavarria is a talented defender, but there were definitely questions about whether or not that talent would translate to numbers. They did in 2015, when he put up a 2.5-win season by most accounts. Will this continue in 2016?
Shortstop Depth Chart
1. Adeiny Hechavarria
2. Miguel Rojas
Minor League Depth: Austin Nola
Hechavarria's entire game continues to depend on defense, because his offense will certainly be a net negative. While Hechavarria did reach a league average batting line for shortstops last year, batting .281/.315/.374 (.298 wOBA). For a good shortstop, that would be an acceptable batting line, and it certainly should not be expected to get better. Hechavarria will be 27 years old for most of the 2016 season, which means we can likely expect his talent to plateau at the plate. The question is whether a plateau means he will at least maintain his wOBA in the .290's, where it might reasonably approach shortstop averages in this depressed run environment.
The argument against that is that the two times he did manage that, he did so with BABIPs of above .320. Since 2013, only four full-time shortstops have maintained a BABIP greater than .320. One of them is the best-hitting shortstop in baseball playing in mostly offensive-friendly environments (Troy Tulowitzki). Two are known good commodities (Jhonny Peralta and Ian Desmond). One of them is a promising former elite prospect (Xander Bogaerts). Only Desmond ever had questions coming into the majors, and all of them were better hitters than Hechavarria has ever been; Desmond's worst season at the plate is equivalent to Hechavarria's 2014 season. Since he has made no other improvements in his game, it is hard to imagine that he can maintain that level of play with his unimpressive batted ball velocities and high grounder rates.
On his side is the fact that at least Hechavarria has improved slightly in each of his first three years. He went from an abject disaster at the plate in 2013 to passable in the last two years, and he at least maintained what he did from 2014 to 2015. Even if those gains were mostly BABIP-driven, holding onto them for two seasons is still a better-than-expected feat. A third season in a row would make this far more likely to be "real."
Still, offense is not what Hechavarria is known for. His confusing defensive talent finally showed in 2015, as he likely used a combination of better positioning and more consistent glovework to earn good numbers across all systems defensively. He was easily a top-five defensive shortstop last year and was in the running for a Gold Glove. Now that incumbent Andrelton Simmons, a player who shares many of the flaws and benefits (albeit benefits at a larger scale) that Hechavarria has, is now in the American League, one should consider Hechavarria a leading candidate for the award.
Each of these projections are still selling Hechavarria low overall, and probably rightfully so. Offensively, he is not impressive, but these projected lines are better than his career marks and represent a significant improvement in expectations after two better years at the plate. The stench of that 2013 season is still present, and given that his underlying skills are not seemingly improving, there has to be reason to suspect some truth still around in all of his seasons. The overall average line of .260/.298/.351 line is not unbelievable given his history. That line is probably akin to a .283 wOBA, which would still be among the lesser batting lines among shortstops. As a comparison, that is about what Ruben Tejada and Simmons have done in the last three years. Such a batting line over 575 plate appearances would be worth 13 runs worse than league average.
This seems like a huge gap to make up, and it has to be done with defense. Luckily, shortstop is a difficult position and the estimated adjustment for being able to play shortstop is steeply positive. The question is how good Hechavarria is at the position. Last year, with his starkly negative numbers in DRS and UZR, a positive contribution from Baseball Prospectus's FRAA, and knowledge of his strong defensive skills via scouting, we estimated Hechavarria to be a league average defender. With the universal approval of the numbers this season, I think a higher estimate is in order. According to the three above metrics, over the course of his career, he has averaged almost three runs better than average per 1000 innings. If he hits another 1300 innings in an expected 140 games played, we might expect him to be worth five runs above average with his defense.
Those numbers all add up to a player worth 1.9 Wins Above Replacement in 2016. The highly positive contributions from his defense last season aided his expectations for next year. His defense nearly entirely makes up for his poor offense, and knowing that he is a slick fielder with good scouting information makes this projection perhaps a bit better than the one-win guesses from the other systems. If the Marlins are right, they at least have a league average player on their hands again, completing a great trio of defenders up the middle and on the left side of the infield.