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Jason Heyward Makes More Sense Than You Think

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A premium 26-year-old free agent doesn't come around very often.

Heyward's 11.3 fWAR over the past two seasons ranks 7th in all of baseball.
Heyward's 11.3 fWAR over the past two seasons ranks 7th in all of baseball.
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Three weeks ago, if you asked me who I wanted to be the future center fielder for the Cubs, I would have confidently responded, "Not Jason Heyward," and according to Al’s recent poll, 81% of you would have agreed with me. For quite some time, I have observed Heyward’s performance from afar and thought I had a comprehensive understanding of what he has to offer. With a career .268/.353/.431 batting line, I thought that there was no way he would be worth the $200 million contract he is reportedly seeking. But, after digging deeper into the advanced metrics, I changed my mind, and my goal is to make you reconsider as well.

Jason Heyward’s Current Value

FanGraphs’ Steamer projection system pegs Heyward for 4.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) over 138 games next season, which translates to 5.5 wins over 162 games. In my experience, Steamer is consistently conservative in estimating how many games a player will play, so I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to consider Heyward a 5 WAR player per current projections.

Now, let me propose an alternative methodology to determining Heyward’s current value – specifically, a weighted average of his six major league seasons. Weighting his first two seasons by 1/12, his next two seasons by 2/12, and his most recent two seasons by 3/12, we again arrive at an estimate of precisely 5 WAR.

Aging Trends

We know Heyward broke into the league as a young player, and that speed is vital to his overall value. How do these factors help us better project his future performance?

Phenoms Maintain Peak Performance Longer

There has been a lot of disagreement among the baseball community regarding when a player’s production peaks. Previously, it was believed that position players improve until the age of 29, at which point they begin to decline at an accelerating pace (slowly at first, and more rapidly as the years go by). More recent studies suggest that players actually peak around the age of 26, and then decline once again at an accelerating pace. For the purpose of this analysis, I’m going to be referencing thework of Henry Druschel at Beyond the Box Score.

Basically, Henry analyzed whether players garnering a substantial amount of WAR before their age 23 seasons aged differently when compared to the general baseball population. In other words, he examined whether players such as Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Manny Machado, and Jason Heyward aged differently when compared with the rest of baseball. The results of his study can be summarized pictorially below:

Courtesy of Henry Druschel

Upon first glance, you probably noticed how rough and jagged the phenoms’ curve appears. This is due to the fact that we’re working with a small sample size of 30 players. Because of this small sample size, we need to be careful about the conclusions we draw from this graph, favoring broader assumptions to more specific. On the whole, it appears that both groups of players peak around the same age: 25-26. The main takeaway is that the phenoms maintain peak production until the end of their age 28 seasons, whereas the non-phenoms begin declining immediately.

Speed Bodes Well

Now, some of you might be concerned with Heyward’s tendency to derive a substantial portion of his value on the defensive end. The following graph, courtesy of Jeff Zimmerman’s piece, shows that fast players age much better than average players. Logically, it would make sense that more athletic players would retain their abilities to hit, field, and run the bases longer than the average player. Take a look:

Courtesy of Jeff Zimmerman

This graph plots Baseball Reference’s Runs Above Average against age, illustrating the differences between four types of players. The only category requiring explanation is "Young Old Guys," which describes young players with old player skills (high K, BB, HR).

From this graph, it looks like fast players peak at the age of 26, and roughly maintain their production through their age 28 seasons. Compared to the average player, a fast player’s RAA hits the x-axis four years later. Since this is purely a hitting metric, it does not provide us complete information on how to project Heyward’s aging process. Still, it does suggest that Heyward should remain a potent bat well into the future, which should quiet some concerns on whether he can remain valuable once his defensive abilities begin to decline. Remember, a center fielder with league average hitting ability and average defensive skills should still provide 2-3 WAR per season.

Jason Heyward as a Center Fielder

With Jorge Soler a fixture in right field, the Cubs would be signing Jason Heyward to be their everyday center fielder. Considering that a significant portion of Heyward’s value is tied up in his defense, it is essential to have a good idea of how Heyward would fare in center field.

In approximately 26 games as a center fielder, Heyward has posted an Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 defensive games (UZR/150) of 11.1. In approximately 750 games as a right fielder, Heyward’s UZR/150 is significantly better at 18.4. However, the UZR statistic fails to incorporate a positional adjustment to account for the idea that some positions are more difficult to play than others. Instead, it simply measures how a player compares to others at his position, and we can all agree that it’s tougher to be ten runs above the average center fielder than ten runs above the average corner outfielder. According to FanGraphs, the defensive adjustment for right fielders is -7.5 runs per season and for center fielders it’s +2.5 runs per season. So to measure the actual defensive contributions that would factor into a player’s value, Heyward’s career DEF/150 in center field would be 13.6 while his career DEF/150 in right field would be 10.9.

It might be a little disconcerting to evaluate Heyward based on just 26 games in center field, but given that his performance there is consistent with his career body of work, I think it’s safe to assume he’ll maintain his defensive value over the conversion. As Heyward gains more experience playing center field, it is likely that the quality of his defense there would improve as well.

Projecting Heyward

Now that we have an idea on how Heyward is likely to age and play center field, we can move on to the more interesting exercise of projecting his future performance.

Methodology

For this exercise, I’m using a pretty considerable regression rate of 0.5 WAR/year after the age of 28, which should give us a conservative valuation of Heyward’s production over the tenure of a contract. As for the inflation rate, over the past six seasons, the average major league salary has increased at a rate of 7% per year. I’m unsure that MLB can sustain such growth, so I chose to use a more conservative 5% rate. Finally, I chose the present standard of $7 million per win above replacement.

Valuation

As discussed above, players like Heyward peak in production between the ages of 26-28, after which their production begins to regress.

Year

Age

WAR

Value (MM $)

Cost (MM $)

2016

26

5

35

20

2017

27

5

35

19.05

2018

28

5

35

18.14

2019

29

4.5

31.5

17.28

2020

30

4

28

16.45

2021

31

3.5

24.5

15.67

2022

32

3

21

14.92

2023

33

2.5

17.5

14.21

2024

34

2

14

13.54

2025

35

1.5

10.5

12.89

10 Years

26-35

36

252

162.16

Heyward’s projection under conservative parameters is 36 wins above replacement, which translates to a value of $252 million. At a contract paying a steady $20 million per year for 10 years, Heyward’s production would provide a surplus Net Present Value of roughly $90 million.

Some of you may be baffled right now. You might be thinking, "This is a guy with a career .268/.353/.431 line, and you’re telling me that he’s worth well over $200 million?"

Here is the takeaway: there are a lot of 26-year-olds who, if available, should command $200 million on the open market. Consider this hypothetical 26-year-old hitting the open market, assuming he’s on the phenom curve (if he enters free agency at age 26, he likely is a phenom).

Year

Age

WAR

Value (MM $)

Cost (MM $)

26

3.75

26.25

20

27

3.75

26.25

19.05

28

3.75

26.25

18.14

29

3.25

22.75

17.28

30

2.75

19.25

16.45

31

2.25

15.75

15.67

32

1.75

12.25

14.92

33

1.25

8.75

14.21

34

.75

5.25

13.54

35

.25

1.75

12.89

10 Years

26-35

23.5

164.5

162.16

Using a conservative rate of inflation and an aggressive decline rate after prime seasons, both of which should underestimate a player’s value, we see that a 3.75 WAR twenty-six-year-old free agent should be worth a $200 million contract.

Heyward and the Cubs

If Heyward would certainly provide the best return among free agents, it still would not make sense to pursue him without considering the team’s present situation. Despite the Cubs’ pitching staff finishing first in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), first in WAR, and third in ERA, it is clear that the 2016 staff could use additional quality and depth. Epstein reaffirmed this notion at the GM meetings, though he did not specify whether the Cubs would acquire it through free agency or trade. Regarding pitching, I think the latter option would be optimal for long-term success, which may seem strange at first, as it is frequently mentioned that one of the biggest benefits of free agency is that it costs only money and not prospects.

As it stands, the Cubs have an extensive collection of middle infielders with only one position to fill on the big league team (2B). Further, these players’ unique assets cater to a wide array of teams; the cost controlled, 2+ WAR Starlin Castro to the breakout potential of Javier Baez, the young and explosive Gleyber Torres to the incredibly patient Ian Happ. Making one or more of these players the centerpiece to a deal could allow the Cubs to acquire young pitchers such as Tyson Ross, Zack Wheeler, or Carlos Carrasco to complement their young bats.

The 2015 season demonstrated that the young, powerful Cubs hitters would keep them in World Series contention for a long time to come. By signing David Price, our odds would improve for two, maybe three seasons, and then we would find ourselves with at least two expensive pitchers in their mid-thirties. Meanwhile, signing Heyward would improve our odds for the next five or six seasons. With little outfield help presently available within the system and the lack of teams willing to trade young, high caliber outfielders (time will tell if the Red Sox are serious), Heyward undoubtedly represents the best opportunity to get a stellar young outfielder.

Given the incredibly random nature of baseball in small sample sizes, the key to winning the World Series is making the playoffs year after year. The 2015 Cubs could have won the World Series – four consecutive losses to the Mets did not signify that the team was inferior, nor did it indicate that we desperately needed a pitcher of David Price’s caliber. The current Cubs team is a playoff team, and so it would make sense to maximize the number of years the Cubs will be in playoff contention rather than dabble in the imperfect, perhaps pseudoscientific realm of constructing the ultimate playoff team. As Billy Beane famously told the author of Moneyball, "My s--t doesn’t work in the playoffs."

Special thanks to Henry Druschel and Jeff Zimmerman of SB Nation’s Beyond the Boxscore for granting me permission to reference their work. Other data are courtesy of FanGraphs.