When you think of the 2021 season, I’m guessing the image seared into your brain involves some specific postseason moment, perhaps Freddie Freeman throwing his hands in the air, or Jorge Soler’s monumental three-run homer in Game 6. For me, though, the image is perhaps more quaint: not even a single image, but a mosaic of Guillermo Heredia celebrating his team’s exploits by jumping, shouting, and of course, frenziedly waving and slashing his plastic swords. The journeyman outfielder chipped in on the field and in the dugout for Atlanta, and made Braves baseball a hell of a lot more fun to watch in 2021.
A Cuban defector, Heredia signed with the Mariners for $500,000 in early 2016, and gave the Mariners 870 PAs of essentially replacement-level production over parts of three seasons. He was traded to the Rays, where he put up 0.3 fWAR in 231 PAs and then got non-tendered, and then split the shortened 2020 season between the Pirates and the Mets, where he got 18 PAs for each team and totaled 0.3 fWAR again, but this time in much fewer PAs.
The Mets DFAed Heredia in February after they signed Kevin Pillar (who, by the way, barely outplayed Heredia in 2021 in exactly the same number of PAs), and the Braves scooped him up on waivers. Heredia didn’t make the team out of Spring Training, but was recalled on April 14 as Opening Day starter Cristian Pache hit the Injured List with a groin strain.
Expectations and Projections
Coming into 2021, Heredia had been worth 0.7 career fWAR across over 1,100 PAs. He was jettisoned by even the Pirates in 2020, and didn’t make Atlanta’s Opening Day roster. He was pretty much expected to provide that same type of replacement-level performance.
While nominally a reserve outfielder on a major league roster, Heredia had mostly struggled on both sides of the ball, with mostly sub-.300ish wOBAs and xwOBAs, along with poor DRS and UZR totals in center field. Avenues for upside were limited — astute observers may have focused on a career +16 OAA in center (compared to -14 UZR and -6 DRS, with only a fraction of the difference attributable to throwing, which isn’t captured in OAA), and an okay-ish hitting line (.311 xwOBA) against southpaws, but Heredia was also entering his age-30 season, so even an optimistic take probably figured he was more of an okay bench guy as opposed to a near-replacement level one.
And hey, okay bench guy is pretty much what Heredia ended up being.
After his recall from the alternate training site (remember, the minor leagues started later than the majors in 2021), Heredia started for a couple of weeks until going down with a hamstring issue, from which he was able to quickly recover. That meant he was the team’s de facto center field starter for most of the year, until the revamped outfield took over. Still, Heredia found a fair bit of playing time anyway, garnering 15 starts over the team’s 55 post-Trade Deadline games.
As you can see from the line above, Heredia didn’t really do too much that failed to jive with his earlier performance. He had yet another .290ish wOBA/xwOBA (his career .292 wOBA and xwOBA exactly match his .292 wOBA from 2021) season, and another campaign with average-y defensive marks, where he once again posted a strong OAA that didn’t translate into UZR or DRS
What went right? What went wrong?
On the field, Heredia set a new career high in fWAR with 0.5. He posted +4 OAA in center field and +5 OAA total. He tied his prior career high in average exit velocity, and set a new high in hard-hit rate, though both were below-average overall. Perhaps the bigger deal, though, was his dugout persona, a vivacious wild card whose antics endeared him to Braves fans first, and national audiences second. While the scuttlebutt around the league was that Heredia definitely brought personality to his teams, no one could have anticipated the bizarre awesomeness of plastic swords, or the possibility that the Braves kept Orlando Arcia around just because he hung out with Heredia and gave the latter’s chattering a constant listening ear.
Still, it was hardly a storybook season for Heredia. His UZR/DRS not lining up to his OAA cost him some production — this might be a case where Heredia playing too shallowly hurts him, as he consistently plays one of the shallower centers in the majors. However, when he played a relatively deep center in 2018, he still had a bad UZR/DRS with a great OAA, so that may not be it. He tried to get into the same groove as many of his teammates in terms of swing decision, but ended up chasing a ton and not making great contact even when he did connect. If there’s a way for Heredia to be a meaningful on-field contributor, it’s not clear he’s unlocked it or discovered it yet — for now he represents a defense-first fourth or fifth outfielder with some added watchability points for his antics and overall élan.
Road to the Title
Heredia appeared in 10 postseason games, but primarily as a defensive replacement — he collected just four plate appearances, which included one walk and three outs. He posted a pretty negative WPA for the year, which makes sense given his offensive outputs, and as a result, a pretty sizable negative cWPA as well (-1.20% in the regular season, and then around -1.30% from his four PAs in the postseason).
Amusingly, Heredia’s highest-WPA/cWPA game of the season 1) came in a loss and 2) didn’t really have much to do with him, either. In the tenth inning of a tie game in Philadelphia, Heredia drew a pinch-hit, one-out walk, and later scored what was the Braves’ second run of the inning (giving them a two-run lead) on a passed ball. The Braves lost the game due to a Chris Martin meltdown anyway, so Heredia’s season-high in WPA/cWPA was rendered moot.
Outlook for 2022
Heredia enters the offseason arbitration-eligible, and the Matt Swartz/MLB Trade Rumors model has him pegged for a salary of around $1.6 million. That’s a pretty low price to pay for a well-liked bench player, so the Braves may tender him just because. Steamer currently projects Heredia to have marginally negative fWAR in 2022, and while I think that’s a little pessimistic, he’ll also be 31 to start the season, and there’s a chance the Braves could find someone a little better for league minimum instead. Still, he’ll latch on somewhere — despite his replacement level-type production, Heredia hasn’t actually spent any notable time in the minors since 2016. With the center field market in free agency being all sorts of brutal this year, he’ll have a home for sure. I’m guessing the Braves will tender him a contract, especially since he has an option remaining and therefore gives them the flexibility they’ve craved over the last few years in that regard.