Last night Guillermo Heredia went 3-for-5 with two singles, and a 2 RBI double. He didn’t rob anyone of a home run, nor did he make any diving catches, and his performance was justifiably overshadowed by hot nights from Danny Valencia and Ben Gamel (please beware of flying pigs today). While my instinct is to jump up and down and praise this kind of start, I’ve started to come to the realization that this just might be the type of night we can regularly look forward to whenever Heredia’s in the lineup. Since April 21 he has started every game, and in all but one of those starts he has gotten on base at least once. He’s got a 137 wRC+ and has already surpassed his 2016 fWAR in nearly half the PAs. Don’t even get me started on that defense.
I’ve written plenty about Heredia’s journey before, but still feel that it’s important to note again here for those who are unfamiliar with his story. This was a man who left behind his home and his family by defecting from Cuba, and risked his life to come play baseball in the United States. Unlike top international free agents like Yulieski Gurriel and Yoenis Céspedes, Heredia was relatively under the radar and subsequently spent the entirety of 2015 living and working out in Miami. When the Mariners signed him to a league minimum $507,000 contract in March of 2016, he hadn’t played baseball for over a year and a half. He was brought up first in late July, after spending most of the season in double-A Jackson (where he was roommates with Edwin Díaz), and he served as the Mariners fourth outfielder throughout the rest of the year. His performance in those games was fine, exactly what you’d expect from a fringy outfield prospect in his first season in the bigs. Heredia’s initial spring training numbers alluded to some major improvements overall, but his performance trailed off a bit in the second half and he looked again like the passable fourth outfielder we had seen in 2016. However, since this season started, he’s been phenomenal; the fifth most valuable player on the Mariners by both wRC+ and fWAR.
I realize it’s poor form to rely on the eye test, but he even looks different at the plate and in the outfield; he’s more confident, more sure of himself and his movements. After experiencing tremendous personal turmoil, and missing out on over a year and a half of organized baseball, Guillermo Heredia is finally now firing on all cylinders. His defense has been incredible, and the new power he’s displayed has been exciting, but what really deserves some attention are his plate discipline and contact numbers.
Currently, when you set the minimum at 60 PAs, Heredia is ranked 3rd in Zone% and 5th in Contact% throughout all of MLB. He is 11th in Z-contact%, and in the 80th percentile for O-swing%. Opposing teams have realized that they’re rarely going to get him to swing at pitches outside of the zone, so they’ve been forced to test him by throwing in the zone and hoping he’ll miss. Unfortunately for pitchers Heredia isn’t on board with their plan, and he’s making contact on nearly every pitch within the strike zone. He struggles with making contact on pitches outside of the zone, somewhat problematic given the ever-creative strike zones of umpires, but he mitigates this challenge by rarely swinging at said pitches outside the zone.
Baseball players began defecting from Cuba in greater numbers in the 90s, and there has been a distinct position player archetype that has developed since that time. When we think about Cuban position players we think about power; home runs, and bat flips, and epic swinging strikeouts. There are, of course, exceptions to this trend, Adeiny Hechavarria is one that comes immediately to mind, but for the most part successful Cuban major leaguers have been power hitters. It makes some sense, too; a team isn’t going to offer up multimillion dollar contracts to unproven players with, say, good walk rates. There needs to be some hint, or promise, of power. However with that mindset, be it conscious or not, teams are missing out on other valuable Cuban players who could be signed at a fraction of the cost. These players are also less likely to exhibit a major discrepancy between their Cuban numbers and their MLB numbers, because plate discipline is generally understood to be a more easily transferrable skill.
Two years ago Alex Chamberlain did an interesting piece on Fangraphs about predicting Cuban players’ success through plate discipline, using BB% and K% in their final season in Cuba and their first season in MLB. Included in the article was this chart:
Out of curiosity, I calculated Heredia’s K% and BB% for his final full season with Matanzas to see how he fit in among his countrymen. He had a 9.6% K-rate, and an 11.2% walk rate, which gives him a lower K% than all but Alexei Ramirez. Meanwhile, in his first year in MLB Heredia had a 14% strikeout rate, and an 11.2% walk rate, which represent a 4.4% increase and a hold, respectively. Again, those rates are most similar to Ramirez, but Ramirez experienced a dramatic drop-off in his ability to walk, while Heredia’s stayed the same. In this admittedly small sample size, Heredia’s transition from Cuba to MLB has been an unprecedented success.
Fueled by further curiosity, and a desire for more recent data, I also took a look at how some of Heredia’s PITCH f/x plate discipline numbers stacked up against other Cuban players this season. Heredia has remained remarkably consistent, and stands out once again in comparison to fellow Cubans.
Plate Discipline Among Cuban Players in 2017
*Two things to note: 1) This table includes only Cuban players who have had more than 60 plate appearances, and 2) I pulled the numbers from Fangraphs last night, before they’d updated the data with the results from games that day.
There are plenty of exciting comparisons to be made with Guillermo Heredia’s production and that of other players in the league, but when it comes to comparing his plate appearances and discipline to those who have similar backgrounds and have undergone similar experiences, Heredia’s in a class all his own. If Heredia can maintain some level of this success throughout the season, he could open up an entirely new door for Cuban players looking to break into the big leagues. His performance have widespread ramifications for the MLB opportunities of similarly-tooled Cuban players, as well as for international scouting departments. There have been more successful Cuban players, to be sure, but the means with which Guillermo Heredia has achieved success at the major league level are historically unprecedented.