Wednesday December 9th, 2015

NASHVILLE—What price WAR? No outfielder on the free agent market has signed a contract yet. That’s because the baseball industry is having a hard time coming to grips with the value of the guy who will set the uppermost end of that market: Jason Heyward, a rightfielder who hits like Neil Walker but will get paid like Prince Fielder.

Heyward is the most fascinating free agent on the market. He is causing the greatest collision yet between traditional measurements of elite value and those of modern metrics. Of the 39 position players to have signed contracts worth $100 million or more, Heyward will become the first outfielder to do so without ever scoring or driving in 100 runs. (Only three non-outfielders have done so: shortstop Elvis Andrus, then-catcher Joe Mauer and third baseman Kyle Seager.)

Agents and even club analytics departments scoff at such an old-school, team-dependent frame of reference. They prefer to define Heyward by his Wins Above Replacement, an attempt at a catch-all number that is used routinely when clubs meet with agents about players. WAR is a helpful approximation with some flaws in evaluating defense, but it routinely gets misused as hard data, like a counting stat.

WAR is Heyward’s best friend, rating him as a top-10 player. Over the past two seasons, Heyward ranks fifth in WAR, behind only Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Paul Goldschmidt and Adrian Beltre. Since Heyward broke into the big leagues in 2010, he ranks eighth in WAR. Much of his WAR value comes from his superlative defense—even though as a corner outfielder, he averages only 1.7 chances per game over a season.

“We never paid for defense,” said one executive who was a general manager in the 1990s. “I would tell agents, ‘We don’t pay guys for defense.’ And nobody ever tried.”

•​ MORE MLB: Check out latest news, rumors from the winter meetings

Now we have more complex and, for the most part, better ways to define what’s valuable in baseball. But we are still in a transitional phase. People don’t easily yield old methodologies such as home runs, runs batted in and where players hit in a lineup. Remember when America tried to transition to the metric system?

But we also have to pick our eyes up off the spreadsheet. Watching a guy play has value, too. That’s why we still have scouts.

What's He Really Worth: Why Jason Heyward is a $300 million man

No team has rushed to sign Heyward or any outfielder the way they have done with starting pitchers, older relievers and second basemen who will play next year at age 35 (Ben Zobrist). Mere chatter on outfielders has been minimal. Is there hesitation about Heyward even though he is only 26 years old and has the eighth-highest WAR since he reached the big leagues, and even though ridiculous money is flying all over the game?

To find out, I went on a mission here at the winter meetings: Get managers and decision-makers to give an honest field-view assessment of Heyward as a player, not as a WAR machine. I granted them anonymity to assure honesty. It was quickly apparent that I was having a hard time finding anybody who loved Heyward as a player. Plenty liked him enough. But mostly there was concern about paying him as an elite player. So let me start with the one and only manager I found who did love Heyward:

“For me, he is [an impact player],” the manager said. “I say that because he can impact the game in different ways. He can impact the game when he’s not at bat. He can do that on defense and on the bases. He’s a guy that’s not a big power guy, but he could hit 25 home runs if you put him in a place like Yankee Stadium. And he’s what, 26 years old? He’s the youngest guy out there. Plus, guys like [David] Price and [Zack] Greinke are getting 200-plus million dollars and they play only once every fifth day. This guy impacts the game every day.”

Heyward is a free agent at 26 because the Braves started his service time clock on Opening Day in 2010, rather than buying another year of control by waiting a week and a half to promote him. His combination of age and WAR as a player on the open market is exceedingly rare. Indeed, since 1995, Heyward has the fifth highest WAR through his age-25 season, trailing only Alex Rodriguez, Trout, Andruw Jones and Albert Pujols.

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However, one common concern I heard about Heyward was the odd way he swings the bat. He sets up as if he were hitting in a phone booth, with his hands tight to his body and his elbows in. He has almost no load with his hands, opens his front hip early, prefers to get his hands away from his body and spins so hard on his front foot that sometimes the outside of his ankle hits the ground. Heyward is much better hitting pitches down and away than pitches in and pitches up. He clubs at the ball more than he swings at it.

He began this past season with a changed setup (neutral stance, bat flatter and no more awkward re-gripping of the bat just as the pitcher threw) but then reverted to an open stance and more upright bat (but still no re-gripping). He hit a career-high number of ground balls this season.

“He scares me,” said one manager. “With that swing, there is a possibility that you sign him to that contract and he just doesn’t hit. That’s a scary possibility. When you sign someone for that kind of money, you want to feel pretty sure what you’re going to get. I don’t think you know what to expect. That swing is so raw. It did get a little better this year, but it’s still raw.

“I’ve seen the metrics. When you look at those numbers, and you see the guys he’s compared with, I just don’t see it.”

Here’s another manager: “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. Don’t get me wrong. I like him. There’s a lot of things he can do. But he’s not an impact bat.

“I don’t think we’re the kind of team that can afford him. I wish we had that kind of money. But at the same time, if we did have that kind of money, I’d be scared.”

Here’s an executive with a long scouting background:

“I don’t see it. When you sign a guy at those dollars you want the kind of hitter who’s going to hit third or fourth in your order. I don’t see that with him. Really, is he any better than what Paul O’Neill was?”

It was a good question. And it turns out that after the same point in their careers—835 games—Heyward and O’Neill are very much alike:

Heyward 835 158 97 352 86 .268/.353/.431 .784
O'Neill 835 158 99 430 61 .263/.340/.434 .775

O’Neill drew raves as a solid complementary player—who hit third most often. The complaint that Heyward is not a middle-of-the-order hitter was a common one among the men who make out lineups for a living. Here’s another one:

“I like him, but I like him only as a complementary player,” said a manager. “He doesn’t hit the fastball really well. You can get the ball in on him. To me, if you’re going to be spending that kind of money, you want somebody who’s going to hit in the middle of your lineup. He’s not that kind of hitter. He’s a complementary type player.”

Heyward has made only 22% of his career starts in the third or fourth spots in batting orders. He most often has hit second. Since 2010, he has hit like Walker, the Pittsburgh second baseman who is a good complementary player. Here's how those two compare over the past six seasons:

Player HR RBI OPS Avg. OPS+
Heyward 97 352 .784 .268 114
Walker 93 418 .772 .273 114

Another knock on Heyward is that he does not hit lefthanders, though he did improve some in 2015 by hitting for average against them (.272) but not power (.364 slugging). Among all active players with at least 1,000 plate appearances against lefties, Heyward ranks 117th of 124 with a .351 slugging percentage.

Another sign of baseball's changing landscape: middle relievers cashing in

Here’s another manager on Heyward: “The problem with Jason Heyward is that the things you value the most about him now are the things you are not going to have at the back half of the contract: youth and defense. Over time, those only get worse. I would love to have him on a high [average annual value] over a short period of time—give me just his best years—but that’s not going to happen. If I did have him, I would bat him second or fifth, not in the middle. He’s not that kind of hitter. Listen, I get the metrics. I really do. But let’s remember, he’s a corner outfielder. He doesn’t play in the middle. You better love, love, love corner outfield defense to sign him.”

I asked the manager what it would take to sign Heyward.

“My guess is it’s going to be something like eight [years], 18 [million per year],” he replied.

I told him I thought he was decidedly on the light side. Shin-Soo Choo signed for seven years at $18.6 million per year at age 31. Jacoby Ellsbury signed for seven years and $21.9 million per year at age 30. Fielder signed for nine years and $23.8 million per year at age 28. Fielder was the prototypical middle-of-the-order masher that the old school guys loved—and, as a defensively challenged first baseman, one that WAR doubted. From his rookie season to the time he hit free agency (2005 to '11), Fielder ranked 81st in WAR (16.8).

In the four years between the free agencies of Fielder and Heyward, baseball’s annual revenues have grown 27%, from $7.5 billion to $9.5 billion.

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“We’ve already seen three pitchers get [more than] $100 million,” continued the manager who guessed Heyward would get $144 million. “Now you’ve got a bunch of outfielders out there looking for $100 million … Heyward, [Justin] Upton, [Yoenis] Cespedes … you’ve got Chris DavisJohnny Cueto, who if it’s true that he turned down $120 million, I don’t know if he’s got better out there. I mean, how many $100 million guys can you have in one winter? How many can you have around baseball?”

The record for most $100 million contracts dished out to one free-agent class is four in 2013, when Robinson Cano, Ellsbury, Choo and Masahiro Tanaka signed. We may be about to double that record.

“I’m still an old-school kind of guy,” said one executive. “I know RBIs are not the be-all and end-all, but they still matter. [Heyward] doesn’t have that kind of track record. I’ve looked at him, and I am very, very interested in how this turns out.

“It’s a fascinating case. I’m not sure we’ve seen anything like it. I really don’t know where it’s going to end up. But then, I’m amazed pitchers are getting $30 million. If you have an average payroll, around $120 million, and a No. 1 pitcher gets $30 million and a number two gets $20 million, that takes an enormous chunk out of your payroll.”

The best fit for Heyward is where he played in 2015: St. Louis, the team that six years ago gave Matt Holliday $120 million over seven years. The Angels, Cubs, Giants, Orioles, Phillies and Royals are among the other teams that could use an outfielder like Heyward. One general manager told me back in May that Heyward would get at least $180 million—slightly more than the average annual value of Ellsbury over one additional year—and he’s probably right. It’s just that no one is rushing to get there.

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