By: Jack Boulia
This offseason, both Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward will be hitting the market, both with interesting player profiles. Both are very good hitters that play in the corner outfield position, which sounds exactly where they should be playing. Gordon has been significantly better than league average this year with a 134 wRC+, while Heyward has also been a significant contributor with a wRC+ of 121. Since 2011, Gordon has ranked ninth in hitter WAR, with Heyward not too far behind at sixteen. Both players combine above-average bats with elite corner defense. Assuming Heyward ends the season with approximately 5.4 WAR, his season would be worth $40.5MM. Gordon’s injury-shortened season would still be worth $24.75MM. Both are known for their exceptional corner-outfield defense; in fact, it’s where most of their value comes from. Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs believes Heyward will get around $200MM, which is a nice haul as a free agent. Recently, MLBTradeRumors predicted Alex Gordon will get nearly $150MM. It’s not that I don’t like these players; I love them. And it’s not like teams have never heard of sabermetrics; they have. Sabermetricians believe these players should get the large salaries based on $/WAR and blame teams for not being savvy enough to see the value these players create. When these players sign for a lot less money than sabermetricians expect, it won’t be because the market doesn’t value these players, but rather because we have valued them wrong.
The first paragraph seems like I was harping on sabermetricians a bit, and I was. I consider myself a sabermetric, but have gradually moved away from being completely data driven. Just as sabermetricians harp on teams for being only dependent on scouting, if you exclusively use stats to value players, it’s a sure-fire way to run a team into the ground. A sabermetrician sees Jason Heyward’s age and considers him to be a five-win player for the next four years. Let’s give Jason Heyward an eight-year contract. Based on last year’s free agent market, let’s say each win is worth $7.5MM, and every year after thirty, he declines at a rate of 0.5 WAR per year. He should be paid approximately $262.5MM according to the hardcore sabermetrician. By using an imperfect stat to evaluate a player, you get an imperfect value. It shouldn’t be something difficult to comprehend, but apparently it is. Granted, WAR is the best stat at the moment that can best determine approximate value, but just because it is the best, doesn’t mean it is not without flaw. Am I skeptical of defensive stats? Absolutely. We talk about all the time how the “seeing-eye-test” is flawed, but what people don’t realize is that stats, like UZR and DRS, are based off of what people see and what they determine a play to be. Much of it is opinion. Much of it is not accurate. I believe defense to be an enormous part of baseball. I believe a run saved is equivalent to a run scored, but blindly accepting defensive stats has unfortunately become the norm. Most of the time, defensive stats are very helpful, and are the best way to quantify a player’s defensive value, but it’s not without noise.
Would you like to know how these stats are calculated? Well, do I have a surprise for you. Stats like UZR are calculated based on the league average defender at each specific position and are assigned positional adjustments. So, if we look at corner outfield positions, that both Gordon and Heyward play, there aren’t great defenders out there. In fact, it’s still the general consensus that corner outfield positions are almost always bat-only guys. So what does that mean? It means the defense in corner outfield positions is not very good. And why does that matter? Well, if you stick a clearly above-average defender in a corner outfield spot, he is going to rack up a ton of defensive value relative to where he is. And what does that mean? It means Heyward and Gordon are given a lot of value that they really shouldn’t be given. If you put either in center field, their value drops significantly based on how WAR is calculated. Heyward would still be a very good centerfielder, but wouldn’t be the best in relation to the other centerfielders, while Gordon might even be considered below-average. It might sound like I think corner outfield defense has no value, and that would be incorrect. It has value, but not as much as WAR and defensive stats would lead you to believe. Due to this inflation of defensive value, it leads to a serious inflation in WAR.
This, of course, is assuming both players continue to defend as well as they do now. Defense, of course, is famous for aging…not so well, which is clearly oxymoronic. Defense drops off a cliff as players age. Speed does, too. Generally when a player debuts in the majors, that is his peak for speed as well as athleticism. So, one of the big factors of Jason Heyward’s free agency is paying for his “prime seasons”. Heyward will incredibly only be twenty-six next year, which is generally considered one of the players’ prime years. But once again, not every player is the same. Heyward debuted at twenty in 2010, and in 2012 hit twenty-seven homeruns. His most since then has been fourteen. Heyward’s power peak is long gone, and his prime seasons are probably actually right now or have already happened. A comparison I thought of, not an exact comparison, was Melvin Upton. Heyward is clearly a better player and will age much better, but Upton debuted at nineteen and his age twenty-one and twenty-two seasons were clearly his best, while his “prime seasons” (let’s call them ages twenty-six through twenty-nine), have been worth a mere 4.3 WAR. Debut age affects peak and prime years, leading me to believe that Heyward’s prime has already happened. He’s been roughly 18% better than league-average so far in his career, but if his defense drops off and you have a corner outfielder only 18% better than league-average with limited defensive upside, do you really have anything?
Then, there’s Alex Gordon. I mentioned before that defense peaks, and dies with age. If we account for all of Gordon’s missing time this year compared to last year, we’ll say that Gordon has saved eleven runs less than he did last year, which amounts to just over a win. Is this noise, or does it represent a significant drop-off? Well, Gordon is no young grasshopper. Any team that signs him will get him for his age thirty-two and beyond seasons. Let’s give Alex Gordon a six-year contract. If we call him a true-talent four-win player next year, and take away a half-win every year, he’ll be worth approximately $123.75MM which seems fair to me. Offensively, he’s good enough to take a hit from defense. Over the last five years, he’s posted an average wRC+ of 125.2, which is impressive and also acceptable for a corner outfielder. This is less than the predicted $150MM, which seems a bit lofty. I think people tend to forget just how old Gordon is; he was a bit of a late-bloomer, and his age might really surprise some looking for a consistent four-win player.
Throughout writing this article, I actually came to the conclusion that I would rather have Alex Gordon than Jason Heyward, but that’s not what the article was about. The article was about how both are overvalued by the sabermetric community. I think Heyward gets around $140MM, and Gordon settles in at about $120MM. Both players have had the illusion of value created around them, but there’s not concrete evidence it actually exists. Teams do value defense and admire players like Heyward. But they also need to put a winning team on the field, and it needs concrete evidence to feel confident in investing in players. If Heyward and Gordon played a premium defensive position like centerfield, this is probably a completely different conversation. The market values defense. But it also values being smart enough to recognize relativity and when it needs to be applied.