One thing the Braves seemed to have a lot of, coming into the 2019 season, was infield depth. The signing of Josh Donaldson pushed Johan Camargo into a utility role, where he joined Charlie Culberson as another presumably-versatile, play-all-around-the-diamond option. So, when Dansby Swanson hit the shelf in late July with a “foot contusion,” the Braves seemed to be in a pretty good place by virtue of having both Camargo and Culberson available to fill in while their starting shortstop recovered. That’s not really what happened, though: Swanson’s injury continued to linger, and he ended up missing a calendar month. Meanwhile, Camargo and Culberson’s capacity to fill in at shortstop could best be described as inadequate.
Between July 27 (the day Swanson was placed on the Injured List) and August 15, Culberson and Camargo combined for -0.2 fWAR and a 74 wRC+. Beyond that, they combined for (by at least one measure) by far the worst defensive shortstop play in that three-week stretch in baseball. This wasn’t poor play in the abstract, either: the Braves lost at least one game in that stretch due to an inability of Culberson or Camargo to convert routine plays into outs, and nearly lost some others.
Enter Adeiny Hechavarria, fortuitously cut by the Mets right around the time that the Culberson/Camargo adventures at shortstop became intolerable. Within two days of his release, the Braves snapped him up. He would go on to start the Braves’ next nine games, and then got a handful of starts and other opportunities down the stretch (including a couple of games at second base and one at third base) after Swanson’s return.
What were the expectations?
Honestly, the expectations were probably just for Hechavarria to be able to field balls hit towards him. Charlie Culberson generally hasn’t been a good defender overall, with his bigger-sample defensive metrics all over the diamond suggesting that his tiny-sample (but very positive) experience at shortstop could very well be a fluke. Johan Camargo had a fantastic defensive season at third base in 2018, but his tiny-sample shortstop metrics haven’t been positive and his overall 2019 season was something between a run-of-the-mill trainwreck and Oceanic Airlines, Flight 815.
There wasn’t much reason to assume that Hechavarria was some kind of snapped-up-on-the-cheap savior. After all, the Mets had cut him, and he had only managed -0.1 fWAR with pretty poor hitting and fielding before they saw fit to part ways with him. He had bounced around three teams in 2018 (0.4 fWAR total); his last decent season was 2017.
The Braves may not have been even hoping for an average-y bench-type fill-in given his 2019 performance to date, but that probably would have been a reasonable expectation. Instead, they got a lot more.
What went right in 2019?
In just 70 PAs, Hechavarria finished with 0.9 fWAR, on the back of an insane 162 wRC+. He also played not just good-enough, but good-ish defense. The defense was perhaps not a surprise, or at least not a big one — Hechavarria has been a positive defender at shortstop for his career, and while age-related decline was taking effect, it hadn’t yet fully attritioned his skills. In the end, among all four humans to man shortstop for the Braves in 2019, Hechavarria was the only one to finish either positive DRS or positive UZR. You could pretty much make the case that his 113 innings at shortstop as a Brave outdid Swanson’s defensive contribution in nearly 1,100 innings of his own.
But it wasn’t just about the defense, oh no. Somehow, Hechavarria managed a crazy-good hitting mark that wasn’t only a mirage, though it did have certain mirage-like tendencies. To be sure, that 162 wRC+ (.429 wOBA) came on the back of a .362 xwOBA... but a .362 xwOBA is still really, really good. It’s not a stretch to say that his 24 games as a Brave were among the most productive, offensively, of his career. (Mid-September 2017 and late April/early May 2015 are the only contenders here.)
It wasn’t something he had never done before, even on an xwOBA basis, but it certainly wasn’t the norm for him, he of the career 74 wRC+ and .294 xwOBA since the start of 2015. After all, he only finished with a 93 wRC+/.316 wOBA (.296 xwOBA) for the season, so it’s pretty neat that it all came in a Braves uniform.
Beyond that, Hechavarria found a way to ladder his contributions when they counted the most. As a Brave, he had seven high-leverage PAs across his 24 games. In those PAs, he had four hits (single, two doubles, a homer), got hit by a pitch, and hit a sacrifice fly. Even if you extend it to high- or medium-leverage PAs (38 of his 70), he still managed a 240 wRC+ therein. Way to make an impression with your new team. His most impressive feat was in pure seasonal garbage time, during the season’s final game, in which he hit not only a game-tying solo homer to lead off the ninth, but then added a go-ahead solo homer with one out in the 11th.
If you take a step back and only want to look at games that actually mattered, though, no worries. Look no further than August 22, facing his former team. Hechavarria singled to score the first run of the game, and then hit a leadoff double in the ninth to set up Ronald Acuña Jr.’s walkoff, two-out single later in the frame. Or, the very next game, in which his double in the 14th set up the eventual winning run to score on Billy Hamilton’s single.
What I’m saying is that a lot of things went right, and I don’t just mean Hech’s epic bat flips. Not bad for a costless acquisition meant to serve as an injury fill-in and not much else. Not bad at all.
What went wrong in 2019?
From the Braves’ perspective, basically nothing? Again, we’re talking 0.9 fWAR in 70 PAs, here. He didn’t really even make any key, game-defining outs.
If anything, the only thing to really mention here is his playoff performance, which comprised all of three, count ‘em, three plate appearances. In Game 1, he struck out on three pitches against Giovanny Gallegos to end the sixth; the Braves had a two-run lead at that point but there were two men on. In Game 3, he came up with one out and the tying run on second in the ninth, and went down on a check-swing miss of a Carlos Martinez slider; the Braves would go on to win the game thanks to Dansby Swanson’s heroics. Then, in Game 4, with the bases juiced and the Braves still leading by a run... he had a chance to blow the game open, but flew out instead.
(No, that last one wasn’t that well-hit. It may have been more interesting with the standard 2019 regular season ball, but probably not likely to be a hit either way.)
What to expect in 2020?
Despite his quite-enjoyable spree to end the 2019 campaign, Hechavarria will be a free agent and will hope to latch on somewhere where he could serve as a backup infielder and maybe angle his way into more playing time. It’s not clear whether anyone will view him as a starting infielder at this point, and given that he turns 31 in April next year, he no longer has youth on his side. In a vacuum, there wouldn’t be any issue with the Braves bringing him back, but they already have Johan Camargo and Charlie Culberson, neither of whom seems likely to be non-tendered at this point. A trade that makes room for him seems to be his main avenue for Hechavarria’s prospective return to Atlanta, but there shouldn’t be much of a shortage of suitors for him in the guise of a backup infielder either way. Much like when the Braves acquired him, it’s hard to imagine that he does anything else but provide reasonable bench-type production next year.