Jason Heyward will sign somewhere soon. If you’re reading this, it hasn’t happened yet, but soon it will. When he signs, be it with the Cubs, the Cardinals, the Nationals, or the Angels, it will be for a ton of money. Heyward seems poised to get somewhere around $200 million on an eight- or nine-year deal, and it would be a surprise if it weren’t more, absent at least one opt-out clause.
That’s starting to drive some of the talking heads (and haircuts) a little bit crazy. Here’s Joe Buck on Twitter, Thursday:
Can't wait for the avalanche, but what am I missing with Heyward?Good player-'15: .293 13/60 .271 11/58 in 20014?But for 20 mill per?10yrs??
And here’s Tom Verducci, in a piece for SI.com that went up on Wednesday:
… [T]he baseball industry is having a hard time coming to grips with the value of the guy who will set the uppermost end of that market: Jason Heyward, a rightfielder who hits like Neil Walker but will get paid like Prince Fielder.
Look, as you do, I know there are a whole lot of better baseball analysts out there talking about Heyward being worth as much as $300 million, if he were willing to sign a 10- or 12-year deal, so don’t get so confused as to believe that everyone holds such backward views of the world. Still, Verducci went on to list a terrifying number of anonymous quotes from actual big-league managers and executives, guys who should know much better, but who sounded more or less the same notes, over and over. Where are the RBIs? How is that defense going to age? Can this guy really hit in the middle of a batting order?
So, before the dust clears and Heyward signs somewhere and we all move on to talking about the fit with his new team and the implications of his deal on the markets for Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton and Chris Davis, before the moment to actually talk through this passes, let’s get a few things clear: Jason Heyward is an absolutely elite baseball player, and 99 percent of your arguments to the contrary are nonsense.
Verducci gleefully picked up on one skipper’s comparison of Neil Walker to Heyward, sliding it up into his lede, hand-picking a few unadjusted stats that make it look true and stuffing them into a table. Here’s the fact of the matter: Jason Heyward has a .292 career True Average. Neil Walker’s TAv is .280—or, Heyward’s worst seasonal TAv of the last four.
Here’s one for the “not in the middle of my order” crowd: Heyward is a little light on power, so maybe his optimal spot is second, instead of third or fourth. If you’re really averse to a guy with a .292 career TAv being a key offensive cog for you, though, take note: that’s Chris Davis’s career TAv, too.
Now, wait a minute, says the Davis supporter. Davis had a .316 TAv in 2015, and that boffo .358 mark in 2013. No team is lining up to pay Davis, who has a little more defensive value than some think but is ultimately either a slugger or a slug, because of his full body of work. It’s these last four years, since he found a home and a role in Baltimore, that make him a star. Okay, fair enough. Just note that in 2014, between his two pay-me seasons, he had a .272 TAv, batted .196, and was worth 0.7 WARP. That is one season ago for Davis, who’s also three and a half years Heyward’s senior. He’s essentially a boom-or-bust version Adam Dunn, with far bigger error bars but roughly the same total production.
Several managers gave Verducci really harsh quotes about Heyward’s swing. They hate Jason Heyward’s swing, in the halls of baseball coaching power. One manager said, “With that swing, there is a possibility that you sign him to that contract and he just doesn’t hit. That’s a scary possibility.” If Heyward signs for the team that guy manages, maybe there will be a real problem, because it’s a good bet they’ll work hard to change him. Otherwise, though, there comes a point when this kind of quote represents nothing so much as closed-mindedness. Chris Sale has been doing what he does for much less time than Heyward has been doing what he does, and everyone is done wondering whether he needs to be overhauled. When a player does something in a radically different way than others, the test is pretty simple. If he’s worse than other players, his quirk is a problem. If he’s better than other players, it’s just the way he does things. Heyward might need to adjust some day, and as Verducci noted in his article, he began to do so even in 2015. Until what he’s doing stops producing really good results, though, what’s the argument here?
The problem with Jason Heyward, in the view of so very many people in and around baseball, is that the shape of his production somehow necessarily shrinks it. The fallacy there lies in the mistaken idea that baseball is like other sports. It simply isn’t, and it’s weird how hard that is for people to grasp. In football and basketball, it matters how a player fits into a scheme. Players’ performances mix with and encroach upon one another, and the effectiveness of each is affected by the interaction effects there. In baseball, the cases in which this happens are vanishingly rare, and often quite unimportant. Unless you believe that Davis’ skill set will allow him to keep hitting at his peak level now that his physical peak is over, or that Heyward’s will prevent him from improving at the ages at which players nearly always peak, there’s no clear evidence that Davis even has a better bat. Yet, if one could slice up the contract Heyward is about to get into dollars paid for offense, defense, and baserunning, it would become clear that some team is going to pay more for Davis’ offense than for Heyward’s. Because Davis hits dingers.
Every little adjustment for which you search, every non-batting aspect of value, bespeaks Heyward’s dominance. He was the fourth-most valuable baserunner the league last season, adding 6.1 runs through not only speed, but excellent instincts and intelligence. He’s one of the most valuable defensive properties in baseball, despite playing a corner-outfield spot, and despite relying more on excellent reads and routes than on blazing speed. Why anyone would discount those elements of the game isn’t clear, but more to the point, it shouldn’t matter. Heyward is just reaching the age range at which most players peak offensively, and he’s gotten there with the same career TAv Troy Tulowitzki had at the same age. Contrary to the most popular criticism of Heyward, it would be wildly atypical if his defensive value evaporated overnight. He is the 34th player of the expansion era to record at least 2,000 plate appearances and be worth at least 40 fielding runs (per Baseball Reference) through his age-25 season. (The site uses Defensive Runs Saved for Heyward’s seasons, and credits him with over 120 runs saved, but it was hard to find a comp for that level of excellence.) Of the first 33, only four were negative-value fielders over their age-26 through age-29 campaigns, and 20 of them were worth at least 20 fielding runs over those four years. Half of the list were as good or better hitters from age 26 through the end of their careers (often capturing more than the longest imaginable term of Heyward’s deal), and 20 were better from 26 through 29 than through 25. The best comps for Heyward on the list, for whatever it’s worth, are Dwight Evans, Lloyd Moseby, Reggie Smith, and Sammy Sosa. All but Moseby were substantially better hitters after turning 26, and all but Moseby remained fine fielders at least through their 30th birthday.
Heyward is not going to turn into a defensive pumpkin tomorrow, and even if he were, he would have his promising offensive development to speak for him. We shouldn’t have to have a conversation about whether his exceptional well-roundedness and unique offensive skill set are assets or liabilities. He’s fully deserving of the richest contract in baseball history, but because he gets his greatness from sources too subtle for some tastes, we’re stuck debating whether he even stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Mark Teixeira.
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