Every team has role players; most teams need a versatile utility guy to make it through the marathon of a major league season. For the Braves, Ehire Adrianza provided that kind of Swiss army knife support as injuries beset his teammates — but in the end, despite some big hits and more than 200 PAs on the season, he really didn’t provide that much value.
Adrianza, who turned 32 in the middle of the 2021 season, was a veteran of eight major league seasons before the Braves inked him to a minor league deal in the offseason. He started his career with the Giants, providing good defense but little-to-no offense, before getting waived, claimed by the Brewers, and then waived and claimed again by the Twins. He had both his best offensive season (102 wRC+ in 2019) and best overall season (1.0 fWAR in 2017) in Minnesota, but couldn’t find a major league deal after his team control expired.
The Braves signed him to a minor league deal that would pay him $1.5 million (actually lower than his final arbitration-eligible salary of $1.6 million with the Twins) if he made the roster out of Spring Training. To that point, Adrianza had garnered 1,220 PAs in the majors and put up 2.5 fWAR.
Expectations and Projections
Adrianza was expected to fight for a bench job in Spring Training; while he ultimately made the roster over Johan Camargo and Jason Kipnis, this was hardly a fait accompli when he was signed. The fact that he hit .400/.500/.700 (not a typo) in Grapefruit League action while Camargo and Kipnis both foundered basically sewed up his Opening Day roster spot.
With that said, projections and expectations were very modest: Steamer and ZiPS both had him marginally below replacement (-0.1 WAR) for the season, with a range of -0.9 to -0.2 WAR per 600 plate appearances. When people worried about the team’s depth at the start of the season, Adrianza (as well as fellow Opening Day roster human Pablo Sandoval) were a big part of the reason why: the team would be relying on potentially-not-even-replacement level bench options, at least in the early going.
The story of Adrianza’s 2021 season kind of burbles into two different songs. In the “story” mode, he provided enough memorable hits and enough defensive versatility to keep the team relatively afloat until it took enough. In the “final line” mode, though, his contributions don’t tally up particularly well.
Let’s start with the former. After missing most of the season’s first week, Adrianza returned from the restricted list (he was getting his U.S. citizenship — congrats again, Ehire!) with a bang, hitting a pinch-hit three-run homer to extend a 3-1 lead in what became the Braves’ second win of the season. After that, he had some big blows here and there: a two-run single against the Nats, a game-tying and walkoff set of singles in extra innings against the Phillies, a pinch-hit leadoff double that led to the tying run eventually scoring against the Mets, a go-ahead bases-loaded walk against the Cardinals, you get the idea. Even after the Braves roared into the divisional driver’s seat, Adrianza was there, coming up with a notable hit here or there.
His defensive versatility also made him quite present. He played every position but pitcher, catcher, and first base for the Braves in 2021, appearing mostly in right field and third base. While he wasn’t a routine starter, he was generally the first choice when a regular had to be scratched for a few days — he started five games in a row in mid-April (one at third, two at second, two in right field), four games in a row in mid-May, and another five in a row in early June. He wasn’t needed quite as much after the Trade Deadline, making just five total starts (including two after the Braves clinched the division), but still logged 206 PAs and nearly 300 innings in the field.
But even if you take all of this into account, when you look at his final line... there isn’t much there there.
0.2 fWAR in 206 PAs isn’t below replacement level as projected, but it’s not far off. His bWAR (0.3), WARP (0.5), and fWAR-if-you-swapped DRS for UZR (0.3) tell more or less the same story, with WARP suggesting he was a pretty good bench guy at the upper end of the range.
Adrianza also got 10 PAs in the postseason, where he went 1-for-10 with a double. Despite the occasional big hit, he finished the season with negative WPA (and also separate negative WPA in the postseason) as well as negative cWPA (with another negative postseason mark). In the story of the season, Adrianza was there; in the stats, not so much.
What went right? What went wrong?
As mentioned, what went right for Adrianza and the Braves had to do with his relative reliability to fill in and provide almost-league-average offense (94 wRC+, league-average xwOBA before adjusting for park) while doing so. His 113 wRC+ as a pinch-hitter was second on the team only to Joc Pederson’s 129 (in way fewer PAs), and he finished second in MLB with 72 pinch-hit appearances. On a personal level, he posted the second-highest wOBA, xwOBA, and hard-hit rate of his career, while substantially cutting his chase rate. He also showed that he could switch-hit fine — he actually posted a .337 xwOBA as a right-handed batter — adding to the versatility he offers. That should probably be enough to get him a look for a job somewhere in 2022 — it could even be with the Braves.
On the flip side, though, a guy doesn’t put up 0.2 fWAR in 206 PAs without some serious warts to his game. In Adrianza’s case, these warts key in to the very modest preseason expectations for him — in short, his slap-hitter-esque game just doesn’t work too well in Modern Baseball. Adrianza made his living, offensively, by not chasing much, and making contact on strikes. His barrel rate, exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xwOBACON, etc. etc., all of the stats that measure how much oomph a batter imparts unto the ball when they connect, were all below league-average, and markedly so.
The other ding on Adrianza’s WAR total came due to something somewhat of his control: where the Braves needed him to play. While the general defensive spectrum suggests that mediocre defenders at third and second should be great in the outfield, that hasn’t been the case for Adrianza who, despite being of average footspeed and possessing a pretty average Statcast “jump” score, has tallied a lot more negative defensive value in the corner outfield than in the infield. All of this is in a small sample, to be sure, but look at how his 2021 broke down by infield (mostly third, a bit of second and shortstop) versus outfield (mostly right field).
- Infield: 135 2⁄3 innings, 0 DRS, -0.5 UZR, +3 OAA
- Outfield: 153 2⁄3 innings, -2 DRS, -2.1 UZR, -1 OAA
Those aren’t huge differences, of course, and it’s not like he played the field that much. But when we’re talking fractions of a win, Adrianza was a couple of runs worse in the outfield than in the infield. Without those couple of lost runs, maybe his production looks a little better. It likely wouldn’t have made a big difference either way, but perhaps the Braves being forced to use Adrianza in the outfield pushed down his fractional WAR a bit. C’est la vie.
Road to the Title
While Adrianza did finish with some pretty negative WPA and cWPA on the year, he did have one pretty great moment: his only playoff hit. In the fourth inning of Game 6 of the NLCS, the Dodgers knotted the game at 1-1 against Ian Anderson. Travis d’Arnaud walked with two outs in the bottom of the frame, which created a minor dilemma for Brian Snitker: let Anderson continue, or throw in a better bat and see what happens? Snitker pushed the “pinch hit” button and sent Adrianza to the dish. After a first-pitch curve that fell below the zone, Adrianza got a cutter up-and-in (but still over the plate) from Walker Buehler and dunked it:
The ball came off the bat at 78.8 mph and hung up forever, but it landed fair and nowhere near Mookie Betts. It continued the inning for the fateful Buehler-Eddie Rosario matchup, which of course led to Rosario’s three-run homer, the ultimate margin in the game.
While not really as critical for the whole championship thing, I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Adrianza’s role in the wacky proceedings on May 8. If you don’t recall, this was that insane game against the Phillies, the one where the Braves tied it on a two-run Pablo Sandoval homer in the ninth, then tied it again in the 11th, and responded to a three-run deficit in the 12th by scoring four runs and winning the game. Adrianza entered that game in the seventh and went 3-for-3 with a walk in the game. His walk came ahead of Sandoval’s homer with two outs in the ninth — the Braves’ win expectancy was 1.5 percent when he stood at the plate. His second single, in the 11th, tied the game as Didi Gregorius threw the ball away. His third single, with the bases loaded, none out, and the outfield way in, was just a weak flare... but still somehow found grass near Bryce Harper and gave the Braves one of their most insane wins of the season.
Outlook for 2022
In 2021, Adrianza showed that he can hit reasonably well for a bench player, especially when facing lefties. He was also fine in the infield defensively, or at least as fine as you can gather from defensive metrics in a fraction of the season (which is not much at all). He’ll get a shot somewhere, perhaps even Atlanta, in 2022 — the question is whether he’ll have to win another Spring Training battle to do it. The Braves aren’t exactly heavy on bench options at the moment. They could do worse than bringing back Adrianza, but they could probably do better too.