“Hey Chicago, What Do You Say”… The TIGERS (Not The Cubs) Gave Out One of the Worst Contracts in MLB History
Photo Courtesy of ESPN-Jason Heyward Player Profile
Steven Campbell is back, but this time he assures you that he will not overlook one of the players on his hometown team’s shortcomings
To be honest, when I first saw Jason Heyward’s smile (pictured above), I thought it was the smile of someone who would help us late in the season. I thought it was a smile worthy of the Commissioner’s Trophy that hasn’t made a tour to the North Side of Chicago in over 100 years. But now when I see that smile, my stomach churns as I think about the fact that he’ll be cashing paychecks for another seven years and no one has any idea if he’ll ever be the player he once was.
The Gamble That Has Not Provided a Return (Yet)
Cubs fans, read these 39 names and weep:
Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Adam Eaton, Jackie Bradley Jr., Starling Marte, George Springer, Ian Desmond, Ryan Braun, Christian Yelich, Dexter Fowler, Adam Duvall, Stephen Piscotty, Carlos Gonzalez, Kevin Pillar, Marcell Ozuna, Michael Saunders, Max Kepler, Odubel Herrera, Gregory Polanco, Charlie Blackmon, Giancarlo Stanton, Kevin Kiermaier, Josh Reddick, Brett Gardner, Yoenis Cespedes, Colby Rasmus, Melvin Upton Jr., Lorenzo Cain, Kole Calhoun, Carlos Beltran, Billy Hamilton, Ender Inciarte, Joc Pederson, Khris Davis, Melky Cabrera, Jarrod Dyson, Lonnie Chisenhall, Bryce Harper, Mark Trumbo
Source: ESPN WAR Leaders
These 39 names are the names of the only outfielders that rank among the top 200 players in the MLB in total WAR as of August 3, 2016. So Cubs fans, see any familiar names? Oh, there is Dexter Fowler (CF, CHC), the All-Star centerfielder who the Cubs re-signed for $13 million, at 10th among MLB outfielders. Hmm, that Adam Eaton (RF, CWS) guy at number three overall sounds familiar. I heard he signed a five-year deal for $23.5 million, and that sounds like a sweet deal for the number three overall outfielder in baseball.
Awww, but bummer: Where’s that new guy we signed to a $184 million/8 yr deal? Jason Heyward (RF, CHC)? Congratulations, you now are aware of the fact that the second highest paid outfielder in baseball just happens to not even be top 40 at his position. How pathetic is that?
So, Heyward may have turned out to be a bad bet as we have seen at least for this year. But, when you really evaluate the same numbers that the Cubs front office was evaluating, can you really blame them? From 2010-2015, Jason Heyward ranked fifth among all outfielders in WAR. Yes, you read that correctly. The only players ahead of Heyward over that time period were Mike Trout (CF, LAA), Andrew McCutchen (CF, PIT), Jose Bautista (RF, TOR) and Ben Zobrist (UTIL, CHC). So all in all, were the Cubs completely insane for offering him the second largest total value contract ever given to an outfielder? Maybe not.
Source: Fangraphs Custom Reports
But, when you evaluate that WAR number more closely, you begin to realize just how much his WAR value relied upon the fact that he was the third most valuable defender in that time period behind only Carlos Gomez and Lorenzo Cain by his defensive (DEF) rating component to WAR.
For a more detailed explanation on how DEF is calculated, please visit the Fangraphs glossary: http://www.fangraphs.com/library/defense/def/
So, let’s talk about the offensive (OFF) component of his WAR rating. Now, adjust the leaders by OFF and you’re looking at Heyward being only 18th most valuable in the six years prior to him becoming a unrestricted free agent (UFA) and signing the second most lucrative deal for an outfielder in baseball.
The truth is that we have only begun to scrape the surface of some of the statistics used to measure Heyward’s value to the many suitors he had prior to signing his megadeal with the Chicago Cubs. However, you most certainly should feel free to use the Fangraphs Custom Reports link I have provided to go through and measure his value for yourself.
You may be surprised to see just how good he was in certain categories prior to inking the deal, and you will also be severely underwhelmed to see just how poor some of his numbers were. For me, the one that never gets old is the fact that the Cubs offered a .268 career hitter and the 26th outfielder by wRC+ value with a 118 rating (see explanation below) $23 million a year in average annual value (AAV).
Another one for those of you just starting to look into baseball sabermetrics is Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). This is a rate statistic that tries to compare a player based upon the value of each outcome in all their at-bats as compared to the league average scale of 100. The way it works is basically that if a player is rated at 130, they are 30 percentage points better than league average. To the contrary, a player rated at 82 is 18 points worse than league average. For more on wRC+, please see the Fangraphs glossary: http://www.fangraphs.com/library/offense/wrc/
Upton and Heyward
But, let’s be fair about this deal. Is it bad that the Cubs have Heyward locked down for eight years as of now? Yes, for now, it appears so. But, the good news (trying to be optimistic here, as Cubs fans always are) is that he is only owed $17.5 million for this year. So, if we’re really trying to be picky here, at least we don’t owe him $22.125 million like the Tigers owe Justin Upton (LF, DET).
I might be getting a little defensive, but it’s true. With a WAR of -0.2, Justin Upton could be the most underwhelming player under the age of 30 with respect to his current contract. I mean seriously…at least Heyward plays a solid right field (DEF rating of 11.7). Even Upton’s defense has been subpar with a DEF rating of -9.7. There simply has been almost nothing positive about Justin Upton’s season thus far, no matter how you spin it.
Let’s take a closer look at the career numbers of the former Braves teammates since Jason Heyward entered the big leagues in 2010:
Stats Measured Through August 2, 2016
Source: Fangraphs Custom Reports
So, now that you’ve seen how all of this year’s numbers line up with the past, one thing is clear: both Heyward and Upton are having brutal 2016 campaigns. However, when you think about which team made the poor decision in offering huge money to a top outfielder, were Theo Epstein and the Cubs really all that crazy for offering Heyward a megadeal? When you compare the recent market values of top players to these deals, I really don’t know that you can call what the Cubs did crazy.
Especially when you consider the fact that they were following the precedent of Giancarlo Stanton’s enormous $325 million/13 yr deal with the Marlins, I’m not sure any contract can really be scorned (Read more on the Stanton deal: http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/11897600/giancarlo-stanton-325m-miami-marlins-heavily-backloaded )
Look at all the numbers provided and try to make an argument that Cubs’ offer to Heyward was more outrageous than the Tigers’ offer to Upton. I’m not sure that you can. Yes, Upton doubled Heyward’s home run total in 2015 and hit for a noticeably larger amount of power (as seen in isolated power—ISO…Read more about ISO in the Fangraphs Glossary: http://www.fangraphs.com/library/offense/iso/ )
But, if you remove Heyward’s statistics from his incredibly unlikely dominant rookie campaign at age 20 in Atlanta, you would notice that the majority his 2015 numbers with the Cardinals would instantly turn green in the color scales assigned to his career numbers in the spreadsheet. I believe that one of the most important factors to consider when evaluating an unrestricted free agent’s value is the trend of his performance.
When comparing the trends between Heyward and Upton, their performance trends simply do not compare at all. Upton had only one season (2011) with a WAR above 4.0 and it just so happened to also be the only year his DEF war component was positive. Upton’s trend since that year was that he seemed to hit a WAR ceiling of 4.0 wins from 2012-2015.
Meanwhile, Jason Heyward had his best all-around year in 2012, despite hitting only .269. So, for all of you like me who questioned why the Cubs would ever offer a career .268 hitter a megadeal, just know that sometimes a sub-.270 hitter can still bear a whopping 6.5 WAR value. But more importantly, after Heyward’s significant fallout in 2013 where he was only able to play in 104 games, Jason rebounded with back to back seasons with a WAR higher than 5.0.
In summary: Did the Cubs make a bad bet with the benefit of hindsight, thus far? Yes. But don’t speak too quickly about the deal being a colossal failure until you really know the numbers behind why the deal was made—they may just make your baseball knowledge sound more laughable than Heyward’s first year numbers as a Cub.
Looking forward to what Heyward and Upton may have in store for the rest of the year, sadly Heyward has only regressed while Upton has shown some serious signs of life after the mid-summer classic (59 AB, .271 AVG, 4 HR, 8 RBI, .853 OPS). Heyward’s slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) since the All-Star break is .172/.229/.266. That is just so embarrassing for a guy making as much money as he is. Side Note: Can someone please tell Jesse Rogers and other Chicago media to stop enabling the idea that Heyward is “unlucky” this year? (http://www.espn.com/blog/chicago/cubs/post/_/id/40102/jason-heyward-on-his-struggles-what-can-i-do-but-keep-working-and-stay-the-course )
Okay, that was a painful yet oddly satisfying article to write. Moving forward, I’ll look upon some young outfielders in the game in a more positive light. Then, it will be time to look at some of the performances put forward by starting pitchers thus far.
On Deck: New Faces—Outfielder Edition
In the Hole: Biggest Busts—Pitcher Edition