At 26 years old, Jason Heyward is a lot of things. He’s an All-Star, a three-time Gold Glover, a Rookie of the Year runner-up, and likely the best defensive right fielder in all of baseball. What Jason Heyward is not, at least not yet, is the proud owner of an eight- or nine-year contract worth close to $200 million.
That Jason Heyward, hitter of only 38 home runs over his last 407 games, is about to sign a deal that will make him one of the richest players in the league has most analysts questioning his value. By this point, it should be obvious that big-league contracts are getting out of control. There really is not a dollar amount that should shock for a top free agent, especially a 26-year-old. Very few players hit the open market at such a young age in this day and age.
Instead of nit-picking whether or not Jason Heyward is, or will develop into, a $25 million per year player, let’s just appreciate all that he has accomplished in the first 835 games of his career.
When discussing Jason Heyward, the conversation must start with his defense. He has been worth over 120 runs saved in six seasons. Runners rarely go first-to-third on Heyward, and he has thrown out 15 men at home plate. Overall, Heyward has been worth 9.8 dWAR for his career. It is still difficult to put a dollar amount on defensive prowess, but there is no denying that Heyward brings more defensive value to the table than almost any other right fielder in the league.
On the bases, Heyward is also a force. Over the past two years, he has stolen 47 bases while being nabbed only seven times. Heyward is excellent when it comes to taking an extra base. He was on first base when a single was hit 36 times in 2015 and reached third 14 times. Heyward was on second base for a single 26 times last season and scored 19 times. Converting runs at such a high rate on singles shows Heyward is very skilled when it comes to getting a good jump on the ball, reading the fielder, and pressing the issue. For his career, Heyward has been thrown out at home only nine times.
In the batter’s box, Heyward does still leave something to be desired. It’s not that he’s been a bad hitter. That’s hardly the case. Most of the value in Heyward’s likely $200 million deal comes from the belief that he will someday harness the power that lies within his 6’5″ frame. There is some validity to that belief, as some left-handed hitters take some time to transition from hitting line drives to lifting the ball and hitting home runs. Heyward hit 27 home runs in 2012, his age-22 season, but slumped due to injuries in 2013 and has since failed to rediscover his power stroke. The St. Louis Cardinals shifted him to leadoff after acquiring him in a trade, and Heyward embraced that role. His swing looked shorter, producing more contact. For the year, Heyward struck out only 90 times, a career-low 14.8% strikeout ratio. Heyward’s ground ball rate — 57.2% in 2015 — is really the only statistic in his batting line that looks potentially troubling. Heyward needs to begin lofting the ball to harness his power.
So far, Heyward’s early career has been very similar to those of Barry Bonds (yep) and Bernie Williams. Heyward will probably never develop into a non-chemically-enhanced 40-40 threat or win a batting title like Williams, but his early career has him on track with some very solid players. Williams did not record a 6.0-plus WAR season until the age of 26, but went on to become one of the more valuable players during the New York Yankees’ mini-dynasty. Heyward had one at 20, and has since added two more. Bonds batted only .256 in his first four seasons before winning an MVP at the age of 25. Bonds hit for more power than Heyward and did steal more bases early in his career, but it took him awhile to really emerge as a true superstar.
The market will dictate how much Jason Heyward will be paid in 2016 and beyond. He cannot control that. In the long run, $25 million per year is a lot to pay for a hitter who is, right now, a two-hole hitter. Heyward is a great two-hole hitter, he makes contact, gets on base, steals bases and takes an extra bag, makes plays in the outfield, and throws out runners. Heyward does it all. He does nothing spectacularly, which is why many will balk at the final value of his next contract, something he does not really control.
The market will dictate the value of Jason Heyward’s combination of youth, power potential, speed, and outstanding defense. For those of us who do not have to sign the checks, it is better to sit back and appreciate what Heyward can do on the field. He might not do it all, but he sure does a lot.