The Miami Marlins love Adeiny Hechavarria.
This is seemingly undeniable. The Fish have stuck with Hechavarria despite two seasons in which his stellar defensive reputation may not have matched up with his statistical results while his bat was as woeful as ever. FanGraphs has 39 players listed as qualified and playing shortstop regularly since 2013. Not all of those guys stuck at shortstop, but let’s use that as the sample of shortstops in baseball since that year. Out of those 39 players, Hechavarria has a better batting line than only four players. His .258/.293/.342 line ranks 35th, ahead of just Chris Owings, Freddy Galvis, Alcides Escobar, and Alexi Amarista.
Hechavarria made strides last season by improving both at the plate and, more importantly, on the field. All defensive metrics had him as a plus-fielder, and he finally seemed to break through with a two- to three-win year for the Fish in 2015. It was about as successful a development as the Marlins could have asked for. Then the bottom fell out again this year. Out of the league’s 25 qualified shortstops this year, Hechavarria’s .248/.288/.346 line once again ranks near the bottom at 22nd in the game.
There is a contingent of Marlins fans, myself included, that is probably not surprised by these results. After all, Hechavarria has done nothing in the last two years offensively to improve other than gather more hits on balls in play, and those are not fully under the control of a hitter. In order to improve, you would think that Hechavarria would have to start making more solid, better contact to add power or to improve his plate discipline to either avoid more strikeouts or add walks. In the last two years, during which he posted a .324 BABIP, those things have essentially remained static from his ugly 2013 season.
Except the irony of ironies is that in 2016, Hechavarria has improved in those areas and cannot catch a break, having suffered from some bad luck along the way.
Hechavarria is making more contact in 2016, striking out four percentage points less than he has over the course of his career. This, mind you, had essentially been a steady strikeout rate from 2013 to 2015, when Hechavarria fans had been propping him as "improving" at the plate. He is even walking a little more. This is mostly all due to an increased contact rate, which is something we can all agree is beneficial to Hechavarria’s work at the plate. For a guy who has a hard time discerning ball from strike, increasing his contact is how he will help avoid the problem of too many whiffs, which itself is a dangerous proposition for a no-power hitter. Hechavarria has made contact on 87 percent of swings, which is up from a career rate of 84 percent. He has swung a little less, but he does not seem any more selective than he has been years before.
If it was just the plate discipline, you might be content with the progress but still unhappy with the results. After all, what good is contact if you are tapping it to the shortstop every time? But Hechavarria is also hitting the ball harder, as evidenced by the increase in the hard-hit ball rates. His overall exit velocity is improved as well, as Hechavarria’s average exit velocity is up to 89 mph from 87.4 last season. Not only is he hitting it harder, however, but he is also hitting it at a better angle. Like Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, Hechavarria is getting a better plane on the ball and rolling over it less as a result. His average launch angle is up two degrees to 9.4 degrees, and his ground ball rate is subsequently down to 46 percent after spending his entire big league career at around 51 percent. He is even popping it up less, with a career-low 2.2 percent infield fly ball rate.
So Hechavarria is making fair contact with the ball more often, striking out less, and hitting it harder and in more line drive angles than he did in his previous two "improved" years. All of these signs should point to actual improvement, not the type of benefit that leaking batted balls through the infield got him the last few years. Unfortunately, these results are going right to people. Worse yet, he seems to strictly be missing out on singles and not necessarily doubles, triples, and homers. He is a bit behind his home run rate but his rate of extra-base hits per plate appearance this year (6.2 percent) is actually higher than his career rate (5.4 percent). If we made up the difference of between this year’s BABIP and his career .300 mark in singles alone, we would be crediting Hechavarria with nine extra singles. If we made up the difference to his .324 BABIP from 2014 to 2015, it would be 17 extra singles.
Think about how much that is in the course of the season of four months thus far. It reminds me of the old Bull Durham quote.
In four months, approximately 15 weeks (take a week out of the All-Star break and change), the difference between an improvement over the 2015 version of Hechavarria that so many Marlins fans liked and the one that is "struggling" today is just over one single per week. Those "dying quails" just are not falling for Hechavarria this year.
This is not to say that Hechavarria is some impending great .300 hitter or anything. But this points out just how much luck plays into the game of baseball and a player’s performance in one year. Hechavarria’s results have been bad, but there are some things that he has done better that are more skill-intensive, and other things in which he has done worse that are more luck-dependent. With all the luck in the world, Hechavarria still is not a good hitter or even an average one, but he should be doing a better than this.