It’s difficult enough to separate yourself from the pack developmentally during the MLB offseason. Guillermo Heredia will be entering his third MLB season after spending most of this winter rehabbing from surgery on a separated shoulder suffered early in 2017 and exacerbated in early September. The mostly unheralded prospect has shown speed, defense, and even the occasional flash offensively. To earn a full-time role, however, his best bet is taking a few tips from Jarrod Dyson and Dee Gordon on the basepaths.
Why a separated shoulder is an admissible injury to play through in MLB I’m not sure I know. It seems like the type of injury that would hinder your ability to drink a cup of coffee, much less swing a bat. The impact of the aggravation was obvious. After a more than capable stretch with a 97 wrC+ and a .272/.338/.377 line in 350 PAs from April-August, Guillermo’s power and swing fell apart. He finished the season with a grisly .143/.211/.157 and a 3 wRC+ in his final 76 PAs, cutting his season total to just an 80 wRC+.
As splits the writer chooses are wont to do, Heredia’s numbers look even better if his season ends on August 16th, just after taking a fastball off the forearm from Ubaldo Jimenez forced him to leave the game. A .287/.348/.395 line, a 106 wRC+, and brilliant defense through that point had given the Mariners a shot in the arm with Mitch Haniger still recovering from a Jacob DeGrom fastball to the face.
Much of 2017 turned to ash in our mouths, but often the occasional rewarding morsel came from Heredia’s exciting defense.
While Heredia should be ready for Spring Training, shoulder-related rehab could interfere with attempts at another step forward offensively. That’s alright. What’s holding El Conde back has less to do with technique at the plate, but what comes afterwards.
Guillermo earned a -1.3 BsR rating from Fangraphs (0 is average), sandwiched between lovable oafs Mike Zunino and Kyle Seager on the Mariners roster. Baserunning metrics aren’t from the be-all, end-all for a player, but they get us in the ballpark. For a player of Heredia’s athleticism, that’s embarrassing company. How can that be? Let’s run through a few possibilities:
1. Is Guillermo Heredia actually slow?
Statcast measured Heredia’s average sprint speed at 27.9 ft/sec. That’s not elite, but it’s comfortably above-average, and in the company of noted outfield Fastmen™ Kevin Pillar, A.J. Pollock, and Cameron Maybin. If you’d prefer it from a scouting expert and not a stopwatch, Baseball America’s scouting report when Heredia first signed describes him as a “plus runner with an explosive first step.”
Also, if you’re reading this, you’ve watched Guillermo Heredia run. He’s not slow, okay?
2. Did Guillermo Heredia make bad decisions while baserunning?
The Mariners seemed to be visited by the TOOTBLAN Fairy in 2017, although it often had to wait its turn behind the Injury Kappa and the High-Leverage Struggles Gargoyle. While the once venerable TOOTBLAN Tracker no longer runs, I used a high-level formula to determine if Heredia was involved in any particularly nasty miscues. He came out mostly unscathed, and BsR backs that up. Heredia used his speed to take extra bases at an above-average rate. That also points us to our final issue, and a focal point for this Spring.
3. Does Guillermo Heredia need to learn how to steal bases better?
An emphatic YES.
Heredia has never been an exceptional base-stealer. In Cuba he was successful in just 20 of his 46 attempts. Little improved stateside as he was 5-for-10 combined in AA/AAA before being called up. In 2016 he was 1-for-2, and last year a ghastly 1-for-6. Metrics like wSB and BsR calculate and tell us that the break-even point for a “worthwhile” stolen base is if you’re successful around 66-70% of the time. Now, it doesn’t take a sabermetrician to grok that getting caught stealing five times for every success is hurting the team more than helping.
One solution is, obviously, not to send Heredia. If he is unable to make an improvement, that will at least mitigate the outs on the bases and give the rest of the offense extra outs to work with. But that leaves Guillermo in a difficult position. Most 4th-outfielder types earn greater playing time by becoming more than just an adept fielder. For some players, that means finding a way to boost their bat, most commonly by adding power. Offensively-limited players can earn their keep by making every time they reach base a steal opportunity. Heredia’s quickest path improvement is in the latter category.
Below is a somewhat unpleasant chart put together using the Play Index function from Baseball Reference. I looked for outfielders who were at least one win above replacement last year despite an OPS+ under 100 (league-average or worse) in a minimum of 300 PAs. Then I sorted that by how much that player was above-replacement level as a baserunner specifically.
If Guillermo can become Jason Heyward defensively, this is a moot point, but the easier improvement seems to be in improved base-stealing technique, and to that I have three small suggestions.
First, stop sending Heredia against left-handed pitchers until further notice. It’s unfortunate, considering Heredia’s righty bat makes him more likely to find himself on base against a lefty, but it’s been a source of trouble. Two of Heredia’s 2017 caught stealings were due to pickoffs by lefties. A third CS came on a late jump against another lefty, Detroit’s Daniel Norris, although the confusion on his face almost suggests a botched hit and run.
Second is the more difficult task, because it involves changing instincts. Don’t tell Malcolm Gladwell but the first 10,000 hours of Heredia’s base-stealing life should be purged and replaced with lessons from Doctor Dee Gordon, DDS.
Watch Guillermo’s lone “successful” stolen base of 2017, off Blake Parker and Martin Maldonado of the Angels.
To paraphrase Mike Blowers on the broadcast, I’ve seen better jumps in a senior league basketball game at the YMCA.
What makes this so baffling is we’ve seen Guillermo demonstrate these exact same physical skills with aplomb when playing defense. The Mariners have spoken ad nauseum about their intent to focus on base-running this Spring Training, and nobody would benefit more than Guillermo.
The third and final point is rude but simple. I think Guillermo Heredia needs to relearn how to slide. Ben Gamel may have been the Prince of TOOTBLAN last year, but Guillermo won honorable mention for floppiest headfirst form.
This was a perfect throw by the Blue Jays’ Luke Maile, but with soft-throwing Joe Smith on the mound and a slider as the pitch, this should have been bagged. Guillermo even gets a decent jump on this one! Unfortunately, in the course of his
fall attempted slide, Heredia loses most of his momentum as his knees hit the ground before the rest of his body.
Compare that, for instance, to new Mariner Dee Gordon, who accentuates his blazing foot speed by springing forward in his slide, minimizing the chances for friction to slow his progress.
Guillermo has been more than expected when he signed with the Mariners. His story is humbling. His intensity is infectious. His taste in Italian restaurants is... evolving. Even more than that though, he’s something the Mariners, their barren prospect larder, and perhaps most of all their fans need desperately. Heredia is a player with potential, and a real path to reaching it.
Just... keep working on those slides.