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Baseball’s Cult of Offense: A Tale of Two Players

How I learned to love defense and appreciate Jason Heyward.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I’d like to tell you the tale of two players, the tale the media told about these two players over the last year. Their WAR is similar, but for one player it all lives in offense and for the other it all lives in defense.

Let’s start with peak WAR (wins above replacement) over their best seven years to date. Why seven, you say? It’s the timeframe used in JAWS — what? Sara, I thought that was a movie. What is this nonsense? Look, I know, it’s also an awesome movie, but that seven-year metric is used to make sure we mute out the noise of a bad year here or there and look at a player’s peak. Plus, JAWS metrics are super popular these days as we talk about the Hall of Fame, so it seemed an appropriate measure. The following numbers are peak WAR for seven years for our two players (all WAR references in this article are via Baseball Reference):

Player A: 35.0
Player B: 32.7

In other words, these are two players that are within .5 WAR per year of each other. Two comparable players in terms of Wins Above Replacement. Two players that theoretically have contributed pretty equal amounts to their teams in their best seven years. Since WAR is a stat that is designed to allow us to figure out a player’s over all value to the team, and since these two players have similar overall values to their teams, I would think we would expect them to have similar things written about them, yes?

Let’s take a look — here are a few random quotes about Player A and Player B. For “scientific*” purposes, I just picked these from the top Google searches of these players with a time reference back to last season (ie, excluding postseason noise). I’m going to ask that you play along and not click on the source links until we are done, if you do, it sort of spoils the reveal.

  • Full disclosure, this wasn’t super scientific, but bear with me anyway

First up, Player A.

From Sports Illustrated:

Player A is having the greatest exit season ever...What we are witnessing, then, is the final act of one of the smartest hitters of his generation, a man who has kept himself strong enough (with the help of the DH position) to exploit his incredible hitting intellect...Expect Player A to complete baseball’s greatest walk-off season (done on a hitter’s own terms).

From the New York Times:

However October unfolds, Player A will leave as a dominant force for a franchise he helped redefine. That is a powerful closing statement from a player who will not be forgotten.

From the Atlantic:

Player A is the only player of his kind... His current abilities account for some of the intimidation — he has hit 31 home runs this year, with a league-leading slugging percentage — but so does his history... Across baseball, he is a legend. In his home town he is something like a deity.

From ESPN:

Nearly 19,000 men have played baseball in the major leagues. I've decided that their careers all had one thing in common: Not one of them had a final season as spectacular as the grand finale currently being crafted by a man named Player A.

Next up, Player B.

From Sports Illustrated:

It took ... half a year, but... <Manager> finally moved Player B out of the second spot in the batting order on July 4.... “With that swing, there is a possibility that you sign him to that contract and he just doesn’t hit.” Said another, “That swing scares me. I think you can tie him up, and I don’t see where the power is going to come from, even with his size.”

From the New York Post:

So that Player B has become an expensive postseason bystander is not unique. It is, however, an uncomfortable reality to deal with.

From the Washington Post:

But it is reasonable to wonder when that moment to start Player B might be, and what challenges he faces in the offseason to overcome what was a poor offensive year and a horrible offensive postseason. His stretch of not starting began with Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, when Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw could have proved a tough matchup for the left-handed-hitting Player B. But the Cleveland Indians have started only right-handers in the World Series, including Game 3 starter Josh Tomlin.

From ESPN:

Staying the course has brought Player B to a .228 batting average after going 1-for-4 on Tuesday night... Player B is once again right in the middle of it all. He’s hitting .208 in July, and overall his .630 OPS ranks 73rd in the... League and 154th out of 160 qualified players. He’s aware of the numbers, but he's trying to ignore them.

These articles would lead a reader to believe you were looking at players who had massive gaps in talent, and yet their numbers in WAR are similar, you’ll notice that all of the concerns are focused on offense. It’s privileged in ways that let us talk about one player as the greatest ever and another as a failure. It’s weird, because we can demonstrate statistically that both contribute to their teams in an equal amount, but because one does so offensively and one does so defensively one player is in the conversation as a Hall of Famer and the other is in a conversation for the worst contract ever.

Let’s take a quick look at their defense.

Player A only plays defense on the rarest occasions due to the designated hitter rule, but when he does, this is what he brings to the table (according to FanSided):

Player A simply is absent in the field and defense gets deserved recognition...
MVP’s do have a way of being influenced by their defensive contributions. Even the occasional MVP who is a bit laggard in the field still has the fact that he contributed — minutely as it may be — to at least pretending to play defense. Most, however, are competent defenders who also happen to have some real ability to pulverize with the bat.

Player A suffers from being relegated to the DH slot and that may be unjust, but to me it is not. Over the full schedule, it is a significant factor and that reduces my base feeling about awarding an MVP. I will also state that when Player A has gone on the field with a glove in hand, he is no slouch or Dick Stuart. Player A is a smart player with reliable hands. The downside is quite obvious – he moves like a three-legged tortoise.

Since this tweet is going to be a reveal, let’s just do it now: Player B is Jason Heyward and he has won Gold Gloves in 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2016 (out of a seven-year career) and didn’t misplay a routine ball hit at him last year — he made every routine play and almost all of the tough ones:

Look, I know that JHey had a not great season by a lot of measures last year, but the player I’ve been comparing him to isn’t just an everyday DH. This article has been a comparison of Jason Heyward and David Ortiz. And not Jason Heyward and the last seven years of Big Papi, no, Jason Heyward and peak Big Papi. We actually don’t know what peak JHey is, he’s too young. In fact, he only has seven years for me to compare. But if we were to compare the same timeframe, i.e., from 2009 through 2016, what did these two guys do? You’d find that JHey’s 32.7 WAR matches up very favorably with David Ortiz’s 25.2.

Tangent: This is not an Ortiz-bashing article. I lived in Boston from 2007-2014. They are my second-favorite team and I’m not sure you could live in that city during that time and dislike Big Papi. He is larger than life and had moments in that city that transcended sports. I have been thinking a lot lately, however about the relative value of offense and defense.

According to the statistics that we have, Jason Heyward is at least an equally valuable player to David Ortiz and over the last few years, perhaps substantially more valuable. Yet the media is reporting Ortiz as close to a lock to be a first ballot Hall of Famer, and all we’ve talked about since before the offseason was Heyward’s swing as a liability and whether he’ll live up to his contract.

This goes beyond the debate between these particular players. I know that no one cares about my fantasy team, but since I was working on those value sheets recently I couldn’t help but notice that fantasy baseball, at least the way all of my leagues are constructed, pretty much writes off defense. This is how I had a team take second place last year with Mark Trumbo at first base. There just isn’t a penalty for taking a player who is high scoring in offense and has zero game defensively.

I’m sure all Cubs fans are dreaming that JHey will pick up his offensive game in 2017, and for what it’s worth, it looks like he’s been working on that this offseason. But remember, even if he doesn’t — we basically have the Big Papi of gloves in right field, and that certainly counts for something.