Amidst a seemingly endless stream of players making appearances in the outfield for the Braves this year, one easy-to-overlook yet incredibly important figure was Guillermo Heredia. While he wasn’t the MVP of the NLDS, NLCS, or World Series, he was a driving force in helping rebuild the team’s culture after some critical personnel losses. “Team player” is the first phrase that comes to mind when describing Heredia’s performance this season. Regardless of what he was asked to do, he did it with a smile on his face and a constant stream of encouraging banter towards his teammates.
After the initial starting three outfielders were demoted, arrested, and injured, Heredia made 84 starts, almost entirely in center field. Then, the Braves picked up four new outfielders—Pederson, Rosario, Soler, and Duvall—and Heredia’s starting job disappeared almost overnight. Rather than sulk quietly on the bench while his opportunities to start in the outfield vanished, Heredia dove headlong into his motivational, supportive, “crazy sword guy” role. Perhaps no single image captures his enthusiasm and full-on embrace of the support role better than this picture from July 4, one of the season’s most memorable games. Guillermo was so overjoyed at Max Fried’s walk-off pinch-hit single that he actually made it from the dugout into fair territory, swords a-swingin’, before Fried had even reached first base!
Additionally, Heredia contributed far more than just being a sword-wielding, lovable guy; he served a valuable role plugging the gap in center field. According to https://baseballsavant.mlb.com, he was in the 89th percentile across the league in Outs Above Average (OAA). For reference, a player in the 50th percentile in OAA would be considered a perfectly average fielder; higher than that, and the player is better than average. To be almost in the 90th percentile puts Heredia in great company as an exceptional outfielder. Additionally, Guillermo’s 74th-percentile Outfielder Jump metric demonstrated a well-above-average ability to correctly locate and make plays on batted balls, an invaluable skill for any outfielder but especially important for a center fielder. This metric tracks the number of seconds it takes for the outfielder to take his first step on a correct course towards the point at which he can make a play on the ball. An inexperienced outfielder might misjudge a fly ball and start by running backwards when the play is actually in front of him, for example. In this regard, Heredia performed better than almost three-fourths of outfielders around the league.
However, things were a bit of a different story on offense. During his 120 regular-season appearances, he maintained a batting average of .220, an on-base percentage of .311, and a .354 slugging percentage. Those are certainly sub-optimal numbers, but for someone so skilled defensively, it’s at least an adequate slash line. That .311 on-base percentage ranks him at #40 among the 80 players to appear in center field throughout the entire MLB this season, so, on offense, Heredia is the definition of an average center fielder. Of all the positions for which you can afford to sacrifice offense for defense, center field is certainly a big one.
By all accounts, Heredia was a constant source of encouragement and humor during games. In regards to his non-stop chatter, beloved third-base coach Ron Washington said “[i]t’s forever. It’s not just for an inning. If we’re out here 10 or 11 innings, he’s out here going crazy for 10 or 11 innings.” Washington then continued: “[h]onestly, [Heredia] was one of the guys who kept us afloat. He was one of the guys who kept us around. He deserves a ton of credit.” That is exceptionally high praise from Washington, a man who is himself one of the core leaders of the team and an undeniable contributor to the optimistic, joyful team culture.
How does Heredia himself feel about his role on the bench? “Just because I’m not playing, I’m not physically out there on the field, I find this is way [sic] to just kind of just show the team support within my role,” he said, in regards to his sword-wielding antics. Those are the words of a humble, mature leader who understands that winning is more important than his own playing time or ego. Even though he had relatively little playing time in the postseason, only starting one game and appearing in 9 others, he was the first one out of the dugout celebrating every big play and doing the sword chop when Braves batters got on base.
On November 30, Guillermo was re-signed by the Braves to a one-year, $1 million contract, and I personally believe he is worth every single penny of that. Some might overlook Heredia as just another backup outfielder, but he truly represents the heart and soul of this 2021 Braves team. Always enthusiastic, he stepped up and played well when needed, and knew how to make the most of his bench role following the outfield reconstruction. Attacking every game with unrelenting cheerfulness, you could not ask for a better man to ride the bench and celebrate the big wins, or keep up the team’s spirits during the losses. Fortunately, Heredia got to celebrate the biggest win of them all this year!