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In Appreciation of Ehire Adrianza

When the Minnesota Twins claimed Ehire Adrianza off waivers prior to the start of the 2017 season, Twins fans could be excused for not being overly excited. The team was coming off a 59-win season and Adrianza was a light-hitting, glove-first shortstop who hit just .220/.292/.313 in parts of four seasons with the San Francisco Giants. Sure, Eduardo Escobar had had a terrible season as the Twin’s primary shortstop hitting .236/.280/.338, but Twins fans got an extended glimpse of the future with Jorge Polanco batting .282/.332/.424 in 69 games. With Miguel Sano, Polanco, Brian Dozier, and Joe Mauer covering the infield and Escobar as the utility man, Adrianza served as an emergency depth piece.
Image courtesy of © Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
It did make some sense to have Adrianza around. Although Polanco’s bat looked like it would play at the MLB level, there were plenty of question marks pertaining to his ability to play short. Many in the industry, and Twins organization, felt Polanco’s long-term home would be at second, where he was then blocked by Dozier. Things were also a bit uncertain with Escobar as he had really struggled with the bat in 2016 and was underwhelming defensively. Adrianza at least gave the Twins a player who could step in and play solid defense, if not offering much with the bat.

Up to this season, Adrianza has pretty much been the player fans could expect. He has been dependable, if not overly impressive. Adrianza has shown the ability to play short and play all around the diamond as well. In his time with Minnesota, he has played every position outside of center field and catcher, even pitching an inning this year. While his bat wasn’t great in 2017-18, he did show significant improvement from his number with the Giants. In 552 plate appearances, Adrianza slashed .256/.309/.380 for an OPS of .689, acceptable for a glove-first utility player.

Coming into 2019, Adrianza’s role seemed even more up in the air as the Twins signed Marwin Gonzalez to a two-year, $21 million contract. With Gonzalez serving as the main ultility player, Adrianza was in a familiar position as the second utility option. With Minnesota’s stacked lineup, opportunities looked to be sparse, but Adrianza still filled a need as he is more palatable defensively at short than Gonzalez if Polanco were to suffer an injury.

The season definitely got off to a slow start for Adrianza. Through May 10 Adrianza was hitting an unsightly .125/.218/.188 (.406 OPS). As the weather warmed so has Adrianza, batting a remarkable .355/.443/.518 (.961 OPS) in 47 games (31 starts) since May 11. This has been the best run of Adrianza’s career and thus far 2019 has been a career year for the utility man.

Adrianza’s 2019 looks great against his career numbers, but he has also stacked up well against his peers in 2019. He currently holds a .348 wOBA (.297 career) compared to the MLB average of .320 and a 115 wRC+. For a utility player more regarded for his ability to fill in anywhere on the diamond, it’s pretty impressive that Adrainza has been an above average hitter in 2019. By comparison, Minnesota’s “everyday” utility man, Marwin Gonzalez, has a below average .310 wOBA and a wRC+ of just 90. Gonzales has accumulated a bWAR of 1.5 in 97 games (391 plate appearances) while Adrianza has a 1.2 bWAR in just 67 games (189 plate appearances).

Attached Image: EhireGraph.png
Image courtesy of FanGraphs

This is not to imply that Adrianza should be getting playing time over Gonzalez. Gonzalez has been extremely valuable, playing the best defense of his career and providing the Twins with a much needed quality outfielder in the absence of Bryon Buxton. Gonzalez also has a better track record than Adrianza, offers more power and has valuable experience as a World Series champion. Gonzalez is heating up and he came up huge with his recent three-run homer in game one of the Milwaukee series (Adrianza also had a clutch pinch-hit RBI double earlier in that game).

The main catalyst in Adrianza’s improvement on offense seems to be his improved plate discipline. In 2018, Adrianza walked in just 6.6% of his plate appearances and had a 22.4 % strikeout rate. This season, Adrianza has raised his walk rate to 10% (MLB average – 8.3%) and has lowered his strikeout rate to 15.3% (MLB average – 21.6%). Adrianza is also hitting the ball to all fields (he has pulled the ball less this year) and has reduced the amount of soft contact on batted balls from 21.4% for his career to 11.3 % in 2019.

On the year, Adrianza’s playing time has been limited, but he has seen more action in August due to all of the injuries the Twins have experienced. Until Nelson Cruz comes back, Minnesota has the luxury of giving Polanco an occasional break as DH and letting Adrianza fill in at short. However, when Cruz is back, Minnesota may want to consider getting Adrianza in against lefties and sitting Polanco.

While Polanco has had a great year, he has really struggled as a right-handed hitter, slashing just .262/.301/.376. Adrianza, on the other hand, has crushed .316/.400/.526 against southpaws (he’s done okay against righties as well - .275/.369/.383). As the season has dragged on Polanco has looked like he could use some rest. Polanco started the year red-hot, slashing .338/.409/.590 through May 31, but has hit just .260/.313/.408 since. He is nearing his career high in plate appearances and is on pace to play the most games of his career. Utilizing Adrianza a bit more could help Polanco perform better down the stretch by being better rested and not having to face left-handed pitching as much.

Although Adrianza was formerly known as a defensive specialist, his defensive numbers on the year have not been all that great. His numbers have been the worst at third and short and he rates best at second base and as an outfielder. With that said, we’re dealing with a very small sample size, making the defensive metrics more unreliable and there is certainly value in Adrianza’s ability to play almost everywhere on the diamond. He has made some big plays of late and is also the only realistic option to fill in at short, as both Gonzalez and Luis Arraez are stretched on the left side of the middle infield.

On a team that has set the all-time franchise record for home runs and is on pace to break the MLB record, it is easy to overlook a player like Ehire Adrianza. However, Adrianza has been invaluable to Minnesota because of his ability to step in and play virtually any position while providing above average offense and getting on base at a .380 clip. His ability to put up great numbers since mid-May without consistent playing time has been a major boost to the team. Marwin Gonzalez will continue to get more playing time than Adrianza, but with Gonzalez filling in at right and Max Kepler sliding over to center in Byron Buxton’s absence, Adrianza should get plenty of opportunities down the stretch.

Next season will be Adrianza’s last year of arbitration should the Twins decide to bring him back, which they certainly seem likely to do at this point. With Gonzalez around for one more season as well, Adrianza will probably continue to play second fiddle, but it would be interesting to see what Adrianza could do with more playing time. Escobar soared to new heights in his age-29 season with regular playing time and has been even better in 2019. While Adrianza is unlikely to ever see quite the power surge that Escobar has, his numbers are also improving with age, and if he keeps it up maybe he too can one day become an everyday player.

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