How Can We Make Sense of Adeiny Hechavarria?

There’s a regular shortstop in the National League you probably don’t think about very often. The Marlins, though, think about Adeiny Hechavarria very often, and they happen to think very much of him. Which, of course, is implied by his still being a regular shortstop, but Hechavarria’s coming off a weekend in which he made some more dynamite defensive plays, and Jarred Cosart went and took himself to Twitter late Saturday:

Cosart isn’t just in it to build himself and his teammates up. And this is a sentiment we’ve heard before from the organization. From November 2013:

[Michael] Hill was befuddled as to how Hechavarria wasn’t among the three finalists for the Gold Glove award, a prize that went to Braves’ counterpart Andrelton Simmons over Ian Desmond and Troy Tulowitzki.

From just the other day:

“They’ve got all these fancy numbers you measure stuff by and I guess I’m just a dinosaur,” [Perry] Hill said. “I go by what I see. I know what my eyes see and my eyes tell me he’s an elite shortstop.”

The Marlins are big believers in Hechavarria, from the front office on down to the players on the field. Those are opinions that can’t just be ignored, because the Marlins have repeated the point time and time again. To them, defensively speaking, Hechavarria’s nothing short of elite. So why don’t we talk about Hechavarria like he’s defensively elite?

Here is Hechavarria’s latest amazing play, preserving a tie score in extra innings over the weekend:

Hechavarria2

There’s no denying that took an extraordinary effort. There’s no denying that probably should’ve been the last play of the game. So, there’s no denying that Hechavarria made a special play, requiring some special talents. Hechavarria is no stranger to turning in a jaw-dropper from time to time:

Hechavarria1

You can see the skills, just from those two plays alone. The problem is everything else. I don’t know if you’re comfortable thinking of defensive stats as evidence, but the Marlins think one thing, and it’s pretty hard to find support that isn’t just anecdotal.

Last year, over a full season, Hechavarria came out as below-average by UZR. This year, it’s the same picture, as UZR penalizes Hechavarria for what it interprets as mediocre range.

Last year, over a full season, Hechavarria came out as below-average by DRS. This year, it’s the same picture, as DRS penalizes Hechavarria for what it interprets as mediocre range.

Those are the most advanced numbers. But we can pull back and consider a variety of data points. Have you ever taken a look at RZR? Hechavarria’s made a below-average number of plays in his zone, for a shortstop. He’s been about exactly average out of his zone. The Marlins have allowed baseball’s second-highest BABIP on groundballs, and while that doesn’t really isolate the shortstop position, they’re also below average on grounders hit vaguely to the shortstop’s area. The advanced numbers don’t see enough plays. The more simple numbers don’t see enough plays.

Why don’t we leave some room for opinion? Obviously, the Marlins think Hechavarria’s fantastic. But according to the Baseball America tools survey, managers think Simmons, Tulowitzki, and Desmond are the best defensive shortstops in the National League. They think those same three guys have the best infield arms. A year ago, managers said the exact same thing, to say nothing of where Hechavarria might stand against American Leaguers. And just for good measure, here’s a compliment about somebody else:

Manager Bryan Price, without being asked, put in the word for Cozart recently when he said, “When it comes time to vote for Gold Gloves I hope Zack’s name comes into play. To me, he might be the best defensive shortstop in the league.”

The Marlins believe very strongly in Hechavarria. It’s difficult to find support for their opinion. So what’s going on, and how might we explain the discrepancy?

You knew you weren’t getting through this without .gifs of misplays. So let’s acknowledge right here that Hechavarria hasn’t been perfect. The following plays are kind of tricky, to some extent, but we’re allowed to hold big-league shortstops to a high standard, particularly ones thought to be elite in the field. A stumble:

Hechavarria_1

A lackadaisical throw, with a quick runner on the move:

Hechavarria_2

And here are two misplays that came literally back to back:

Hechavarria_3

Hechavarria_4

Most generally, we’re thinking about major-league shortstops. So we’re selecting for the best defenders, from a bigger pool of most of the best players in the world. The average major-league shortstop is an extraordinary defensive talent, because if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to play as an average major-league shortstop. They’re pretty much all impressive, and if you get to watch one over and over, it’s going to be hard not to be impressed, especially when you’re dealing with a player who has Hechavarria’s flash, instead of, say, Jhonny Peralta‘s reliability. Shortstops make most plays. One remembers good plays made longer than one remembers plays not made.

And that leads into the next point: I think the occasional mistake is forgiven, provided issues don’t become chronic, like they have for Ryan Zimmerman and Pedro Alvarez. An error can just look like a fluke, and a hit can look like a play that wasn’t reasonably possible. The difference between the best and the worst shortstops is a fraction of one play a game, and it’s hard to notice and believe in those differences. Individual plays not made add up over time, but each one might be understandable.

The main point is a related point. An issue a lot of people have with prospect evaluation is that prospects will often get evaluated on their potential ceilings. I think the Marlins might be seeing Hechavarria for his defensive ceiling. They know how much ground he’s able to cover, and they’ve seen enough of his arm and his reactions. Hechavarria might have a bigger range of possible plays than the average big-league shortstop. That’s supported by his occasional ventures into the realm of the amazing. As it happens, Hechavarria doesn’t appear to perform up to his ceiling, as a lot of hits find a way to get right by him, but when you see an incredible play get made, that can serve as a mental indicator of skill, leading one to over-weight great plays and under-weight general consistency.

I think two statements could be true:

  1. Adeiny Hechavarria has elite-level talent
  2. Adeiny Hechavarria has yet to put together an elite-level performance

These are basically just guesses on my part, but it’s the best explanation I can come up with for why the Marlins and everyone and everything else seem to disagree. I think the Marlins are aware of Hechavarria’s tools, and they’ve seen how good he could be at his best. I think they subconsciously brush aside when he’s not at his best, because an individual throwing error can be a fluke, and an individual misstep can be a fluke, and individual flukes are anomalous lapses. Those lapses pile up and over enough time they start to reflect skill, but none of them reflect skill quite like Hechavarria tracking that pop-up behind second base. How could a player who does that not be outstanding?

It’s funny — a year ago, the Marlins were receptive to the idea that maybe they were just positioning Hechavarria wrong.

Added Marlins infield coach Perry Hill: “I guess the numbers don’t lie. I need to do a better job getting him in the right place, bottom line. I saw a lot of good shortstops. I didn’t see anyone that was any better than him.”

Perry Hill, a year ago: “I guess the numbers don’t lie.”

Perry Hill, 2014: “They’ve got all these fancy numbers you measure stuff by and I guess I’m just a dinosaur. I go by what I see.”

For the Marlins, regarding Hechavarria, there’s less doubt than ever. For the rest of us, regarding Hechavarria, there’s more doubt than ever. But for all I know, this might just come down to a misunderstanding. For all I know, this is about the difference between evaluating ability and evaluating performance. Hechavarria’s got a lot of ability.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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tz
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tz

Bet a discussion on Brandon Crawford would look a lot like this as well.

John
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John

But Crawford is a good defender.

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