When Theo Epstein took the reigns as President of Baseball Operations of the Chicago Cubs he immediately began to make franchise-altering moves. Among the most influential were trades for Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Addison Russell. He hired Joe Maddon to be his manager. Epstein also signed highly-touted free agent Ben Zobrist in the 2015-2016 offseason, and traded for Aroldis Chapman at the 2016 trade deadline.
Despite Theo’s historic signings and trades, his most questionable decision came on December 15, 2015. I was probably more shocked than most people when I learned Jason Heyward was leaving the St. Louis Cardinals to sign an eight-year, $184M deal with division rival Chicago Cubs. I knew Heyward was having a good career. I knew the total dollar amount of baseball contracts was growing at an astronomical rate. I knew he would likely sign with a new club. What shocked me was that any team was willing to pay $184M for a player whose game is predicated largely on defensive capability.
In terms of average annual salary today, Jason Heyward ranks 21st at $23.000M. Joe Mauer and Chris Davis are also tied at $23.000M. The three offensive players above: Robinson Cano ($24.000M), Albert Pujols ($24.000M), Mike Trout ($24.083M). The three offensive players below: Mark Teixeira ($22.500M), Joey Votto ($22.500M), Justin Uption ($22.125M). Obviously there is a significant disparity with regard to the guys around Heyward, but even Mark Teixeira is having a better offensive year than the Cubs’ premier outfielder. If you convert Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to dollar value, Jason Heyward should be making $9.8M this season.
Let’s educate ourselves further with a review of Jason Heyward’s 2016 campaign. Thus far, Heyward has posted wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) of 68, which is 152nd out of 158 qualified hitters in 2016. Who’s below him? Six middle infielders: Erick Aybar, Alcides Escobar, Alexei Ramirez, Adeiny Hechavarria, Freddy Galvis, and Jose Iglesias. Even if you don’t understand what wRC+ means, you can understand that if I told you that your child ranked 152nd of 158 in kickball ability, that your child is not competent in this particular field. As one of the most expensive corner outfielders in MLB, Heyward has tallied just 92 hits, 5 home runs, and 32 runs batted in, while slashing .225/.304/.313 in 2016. He’s well below his 162-game average of 154 hits, 18 home runs, 66 runs batted in, and slash line of .262/.347/.417. He – quite frankly – does not belong in a major league lineup right now.
I believe Heyward’s issues begin with a mechanical error in his swing, and end with a lack of confidence at the dish. While he’s swinging and missing at just 6.5% of pitches thrown, perhaps the lefty’s statistics would be a bit better if he missed more often. It’s great he’s not whiffing at every pitch thrown his way, but he’s not punishing the baseball when he makes contact. 76% of swings that made contact resulted in soft- or medium-hit balls. Easy plays for the fielders. His struggles are further demonstrated by the fact that pitchers are serving up fastballs 64.8% of the time. With the exception of the Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu, no qualified hitter has seen more fastballs than Heyward in 2016. According to PITCHf/x Pitch Values, Heyward has performed -5.1 runs below average on four-seam fastballs, and -6.1 runs below average on two-seam fastballs. Pitchers know he’s not putting good swings on fastballs – the mechanical error. Heyward knows he’s not putting good swings on fastballs – the lack of confidence in himself.
What’s the term for the situation when there’s a good chance two out of three pitches thrown will be fastballs, and you still can’t perform at least up to par? Most would say that’s a slump. But slumps don’t last this long. Slumps generally occur over the course of 30 to 50 at-bats, not 400. I’m ready to phrase this as a descent with no signs of an uptick.
So, how the hell did he earn $184M over the next eight years? Well, the Cubs probably thought he was “coming into his own.” Despite his shortcomings, he actually posted a 21.5 Offensive Rating above average – as per Fangraphs.com – in 2015. That does not compare well with Bryce Harper’s MVP-winning 77.8 rating, but it’s still respectable for a guy known mostly for his stellar glove and throwing ability. In 2015 he ranked first amongst National League outfielders with a Defensive Rating of 16.4. That ranked third amongst outfielders in MLB, but no player could compare with Kevin Kiermaier’s rating of 32.0. So, Heyward’s proven track record of great defense, intelligent base running, and average hitting gave him the opportunity to sign a lucrative contact beyond his true earning ability. Good for him.
This season he’s been elite on defense, once again. Heyward boasts the third-best Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of 17.2 amongst MLB outfielders, trailing only Adam Eaton and Kevin Pillar.
Cubs Manager Joe Maddon benched Heyward for the entire weekend series against the Colorado Rockies. The All-Star break has passed, off days come and go, and there’s only so much that a routine day off can do. It was time for the skipper to bench the young outfielder. With Jorge Soler and Matt Szczur swinging the bat well, it’s clear that the offensive production from that tandem outweighs the defensive contributions from Mr. Heyward.
Is it actually possible that the Cubs will start a postseason game with the most expensive defensive replacement resting on the bench? It’s very, very possible, especially considering the Cubs have reached this point in the season with a hole in their lineup, but still retain the best record in MLB.
Stats courtesy of fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com