PECOTA has no idea what to do with Jason Heyward in 2016.
The Cubs’ new outfielder has a career .292 TAv and 26.9 BWARP in six seasons, all the while providing exceptional defense in right field. Theo Epstein and company offered Heyward a club-record $184 million contract to produce similar offensive numbers while roaming center field for the Cubs, at least in the short term, and the former top prospect is only 26 years old. Regardless of those facts, and regardless of the fact that Heyward has produced MVP-level BWARP marks of 6.2 and 5.9 over the past two years, PECOTA has hung a mediocre 2.7 BWARP projection on him for 2016.
At first blush, this is puzzling; at second blush, it’s frankly absurd. Heyward has one poor season, one middling season, and four exceptional seasons under his belt before the years that will likely comprise his offensive prime. How could a projection system present such a woeful outlook for a player moving to a budding offensive juggernaut with the possibility of increased slugging on the horizon? Let’s talk about it.
Some of the projection’s wonkiness is in Heyward’s imminent move to center field. PECOTA’s assessment of Heyward’s positional move is not kind; his -7 Fielding Runs Above Average would be, by far, the worst of his career. Leaving out his injury-shortened 2013, Heyward averaged 12.5 FRAA per season in right field, including marks of 20.0, 27.6, and 18.1 over his past three full seasons. In short, he was an elite defender according to both the eye test and the metrics. Even the best right fielders moving one spot to their right in the outfield will be lesser defenders, and Heyward will be no exception. However, a near-20 run negative swing for Heyward is incredibly conservative.
The Cubs’ front office believes in the tall gloveman’s skills enough to not have signed a center fielder to keep Heyward in right—the club’s primary center field backup at this point is the also-transitioning Javier Baez. They saw firsthand Heyward’s short major-league experience in center last postseason, as the Cardinals gaveHeyward with their trust as they fell to the Cubs in the NLDS. Ultimately, Heyward’s soft hands, strong arm, and top-tier range will likely translate well, on a pure skill basis, to center. These skills, supplemented by baseball knowledge and instincts that have already received praise from the front office this spring, telegraph at least an average defensive season in center for Heyward. (If, for example, you can imagine Heyward providing +7 runs in center field, you can immediately add on 1.4 WARP to his total.)
Heyward’s defensive excellence throughout his career provides some reassurance when analyzing the destabilizing situation of a position switch. On the other hand, Heyward’s career offensive arc has been the source of much controversy—many are still waiting, in vain, for the 6′ 5” Heyward to bust out in terms of power numbers. Given his complicated swing, that may never happen. Heyward’s value comes in his ability to do almost everything well—not in his ability to hit for power. Unfortunately, even in today’s game, that’s still controversial. But, underneath that unfairly controversial stat line, he’s been a fairly consistent offensive player. His comparable players list provides some insight as to how he might fair going into what should be his offensive prime.
Like teammate Addison Russell (whom Matt Trueblood ably profiled regarding Russell’s own weird PECOTA outlook last week), Heyward garnered some odd comparable players: Nick Markakis, an average defensive outfielder with similar power but a career TAv 17 points below Heyward’s, who took Heyward’s spot in Atlanta’s right field; Gary Sheffield, a borderline Hall of Famer; and Rusty Staub.
Staub is easily the best comparison, and a player whose career brings to light some prospective developments for Heyward. The well-traveled outfielder debuted at age 19 for the Houston Astros, played good defense, and turned in a few seasons of decent power output before he hit his peak. At age-25—one year younger than Heyward is now—he found himself a Montreal Expo, and his power spiked. For fifteen seasons or so, Staub was a solidly very good, very consistent player. In many ways, Heyward is the 21st-century Staub (perhaps a bit better), with more strikeouts and more walks, but good contact and a well-rounded game. Even if Heyward doesn’t find the power stroke that many have longed for his entire career (a power stroke that might be coming, according to some reports on Heyward’s Spring Training batting practice swings), he’s going to produce tremendous value via his walks, contact, baserunning, and solid power.
Heyward has been a remarkably consistent player the past three seasons. PECOTA even comes to the conclusion that Heyward will likely hit more home runs in 2016 than in all but one of his seasons thus far in his career. It seems peculiar that Heyward’s 90th percentile BWARP projection would be between one and two runs lower than his totals from his last three full seasons, but maybe that’s because PECOTA, by its very nature, is conservative. That said, other signs point to success for Heyward in Chicago, and I would err on the side of positivity when setting your expectations for his 2016.
Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports.