Jason Heyward Can Still Be A Superstar

Jason Heyward just agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. His value has been a hot debate topic since free agency began.

Some believe the five-tool, 26-year-old outfielder is a bargain at eight years and roughly $23 million per season. Others look at his price tag and compare that to specific numbers, and can’t for the life of them understand how this player can demand so much.

Fact is, Jason Heyward is one of the most significant examples of a budding modern superstar.

On its surface, his only season with the St. Louis Cardinals looks underwhelming: 13 home runs, 60 RBI while slashing .293/.359/.439. This is a good baseball season, but is it worth $23 million a season for eight years?

This writer says yes, because Jason Heyward’s value lies much deeper than his baseball card numbers would indicate. Since his rookie season in 2010, he has accumulated a WAR over 5.0 three times in six seasons, coming close in 2010 with a 4.7 WAR. These are impressive numbers to compile over six seasons, but to the sabermetrically averse, WAR is often a reviled statistic, so let’s look beyond that.

Heyward posted the best season of his career in 2012 when he hit 27 home runs, drove in 93, slashed .269/.335/.479 and posted a wRC+ of 121. This was his age-22 season, mind you, and serves as evidence that there’s a lot of untapped power we haven’t seen in the last few seasons that could show itself at any time.

To a team like the Cubs, the power isn’t even important; when your lineup is filled with names like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, you’re already going to see a lot of tape-measure home runs. I’m sure Joe Maddon (and, really, Cubs fans in general) wouldn’t mind an additional 20 home runs in the lineup, but it isn’t a necessity. It’s all the other things he does.

During his impressive 2012 season, you’ll notice he only logged an OBP of .335, which is about average and maybe a bit below for your everyday outfielder. This can largely be attributed to a significant 2.62 strikeout-to-walk rate, striking out 23.3 percent of the time. Since that season, he cut his strikeout percentage down almost nine points, and the ratio between strikeouts and walks improved to 1.61 in 2015. Long story short, his plate discipline vastly improved, and while he isn’t necessarily drawing more walks, he’s being more selective at the plate. His swing-and-miss percentage is also down five points since 2012 (11.4 to 6.5 percent).

Heyward also provides a significant threat on the basepaths. Since 2014, he’s stolen bases at an 86 percent success rate, being caught only seven times in 50 attempts. This doesn’t mean that he’s only fast, but he’s also smart about it, too.

FanGraphs uses a stat called “baserunning runs above average” (BsR), which accounts for not only stolen bases against caught stealing but also measures efficiency when the ball is in play, whether that’s going from first-to-third or tagging from home. It’s the base-running equivalent of WAR, and a BsR of two is considered “above average,” while eight is viewed as “excellent.” Last season, Heyward’s BsR was 7.0, and only in 2013 did it go below 3.0 since his breakout 2012 campaign (when he posted an astounding BsR of 9.7).

That speed means he can cover a lot of ground in the outfield, too, but he’s also silky smooth with his glove. Last season, Heyward made 10 outfield assists in 144 games, and Cubs fans will remember late in a game at Wrigley Field in 2015 where he gunned the tying run out at home plate from right field on a perfect one-hop throw.

His ultimate zone rating was an otherworldly 22.6 last season, and has hovered between “great” and “Gold Glove caliber” since 2012.

Heyward has shown flashes of total brilliance with his power, plate discipline, baserunning, fielding and arm, he just hasn’t put them all together for one MVP-caliber season. It’s easy to forget (or maybe not, since everyone is talking about it) that he’s just 26, and has things figured out that a lot of guys are never able to solve in their entire career.

If he taps into his power (which we know he can do) and continues to be selective at the plate while dominating in the field and on the basepaths, Jason Heyward becomes a bargain at $23 million a season. His tools and abilities go beyond the “baseball card” numbers, making him a sabermetrician’s dream player. He’s not Mike Trout, but he’s real good.

The Cubs gave him big money (and two opt-out clauses), as they should have. He’s a 26-year-old player with all the tools to deliver on the field consistently, and it would be foolish to believe he’s already peaked at this phase in his career. The way the market is operating this offseason, $23 million for a five-tool player approaching what should be his best years is a steal, and the Cubs will be lucky to have him as they fully enter “win now” mode.

2 Responses

    • Zach Bernard

      Corrected. Accidentally read the wrong column on FanGraphs!


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