This past fall, Jason Heyward was the top available free agent. The Cubs signed him to an eight-year, $184 million dollar contract with a few opt outs in the middle of it. There was a fair amount of conjecture about how much money the then 26-year-old received. The talking point was generally centered around his bat. While Heyward never lit the world on fire with it, he was certainly a more than capable offensive player. However, his marquee has always been his defense.
In 2016, it seems as if his offensive capability has essentially vanished. Heyward is currently sitting at a .226/.299/.312 slash with a .273 wOBA and 66 wRC+. All of these are career lows for Heyward and among the lowest for each stat league-wide. Heyward, also being a quality baserunner, can’t get on base enough to generate adequate value there either. But, Heyward’s stellar defense is still there. Among outfielders, Heyward is fifth in DRS and third in UZR.
Essentially, Heyward’s entire value is propped up by his defensive skill. Just looking at the runs added breakdown, Heyward posts an anemic -21.5 runs added offensively while supplementing it with 13 runs added defensively, putting him at 0.9 fWAR. That’s not good. But, looking at his offensive profile, it could be a lot worse (see Ramirez, Alexei or Alonso, Yonder).
Adeiny Hechavarria has essentially been Heyward in the infield. Though Hechavarria has never quite hit at all in the big leagues, he provides another extreme example of what anemic offense paired with esteemed defense does to a player’s value profile. His wOBA is sitting at .256 with a wRC+ of 56. That’s bad enough to generate a -25.8 offensive run total. However, because of the positional adjustment at shortstop and, of course, his sterling defense, he is still a positive fWAR player at 0.5. Again, not great, but it could be worse.
In a much less extreme case, let’s take a look at Ender Inciarte as well. Relative to Heyward, Inciarte isn’t having a bad offensive season. That’s not exactly high praise though. He is hitting .288 with a respectable 7.4 percent walk rate and 15 stolen bases, but he’s not generating any power. He’s currently posting a poor ISO of .092. His lack of power is reflected in his aggregate offensive statistics with his wOBA sitting at .315 and his wRC+ at 95. However, his defense is just as impressive as Heyward’s. Inciarte is posting 13 DRS and 15.9 UZR. This is just short of Heyward in both categories, but not by much.
From an aggregate value standpoint, Inciarte benefits from playing primarily center field. He currently sits at 3.4 fWAR, netting 17 runs from defense while sacrificing only -0.3 runs to his lackluster offense. Certainly a much more enviable position than Heyward.
So, here we have a right fielder, a shortstop, and a center fielder who have produced little offensively but see tremendous value with their gloves this season. All three have had slick gloves for their careers. Heyward, however, is the only one who previously produced significantly above-average value with his bat. Hechavarria has been, for lack of better terminology, bad offensively, and Inciarte is the more middling of the bunch.
So, why bring this up? What’s the angle?
It all circles back to Heyward’s contract. His poor performance offensively has undoubtedly cast uncertainty over signing players like him to similar deals. Whether this is warranted, I’m not certain. Time will have to tell, but I think we can glean some insight on the thought process going forward with glove-heavy players and what it means for Heyward.
Fielding is one of the more dependable skill sets that a baseball player can carry. Deterioration of fielding ability generally doesn’t happen as quickly other skills. When handing out these long term deals, it adds a layer of safety. Even with Heyward’s egregiously bad season at the plate, he’s still a positive fWAR player. Don’t get me wrong, if he performs like this through the duration of this deal, it’s going to — justifiably — be looked at as a failure. But, we see the level where someone has to sit offensively from both right field and shortstop to fall to near-replacement player value. To juxtapose that, you can see the huge difference that providing little to no offensive value, rather than making a strong negative impact, makes. This is an illustration of a player just hitting “enough”.
Where we sit with Heyward is essentially his floor. With his defensive value, we can expect him to impact the game strongly with his glove for years to come. Whether or not he’s the same hitter anymore is up for debate; after all, there’s legitimate gripe about how his swing has changed. But, I think it’s hard to think it will get worse.
In an article about defensive value, it’s worth bringing up the standing of public defensive metrics. The statistics have gotten better, but we still haven’t settled into a position where we’re as confident in them as we are pitching and hitting metrics. However, due to more advanced technology with Statcast and the robust scouting information teams have, they can alleviate most of the questions around defensive metrics teams can draw more certain conclusions. That doesn’t exactly help the public argument, but it’s still an argument worth having.
You could not predict Heyward’s precipitous offensive fall or whether it will continue beyond this year. You can, however, make a reasonable assumption that this might just be the worst of it.
Anthony Rescan is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.
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