MLB Free Agency: Stop bringing up Jason Heyward’s contract

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 24: Jason Heyward #22 of the Chicago Cubs is greeted after hitting a home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JULY 24: Jason Heyward #22 of the Chicago Cubs is greeted after hitting a home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) /

Jason Heyward hasn’t met the Cubs’ expectations since signing in MLB free agency, but that doesn’t mean clubs should be wary of signing Bryce Harper or Manny Machado to long term deals.

It’s very easy to come up with reasons not to sign a player in MLB free agency, which is something that major league clubs have made very clear over this offseason.

For the general baseball-watching public, the MLB free agency freeze has become an issue that is impossible to ignore. One result of this has been a major uptick in discussions about the state of baseball from a labor perspective, a viewpoint that is rarely at the front of fans’ minds.

Opinions about the cause of the freeze vary, and it’s tough to say where the majority of fans stand on the issue, but there is certainly a sizable contingent who side with the teams (ergo the owners) over the players who are looking to sign. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have taken the brunt of this groups’ ire, with many viewing their reluctance to sign as a cause, rather than a symptom, of MLB’s labor issues.

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One of the most common arguments made by this group is that long term contracts never work out, and owners now realize that they should be done away with completely. In their minds, for Harper and Machado to dispute this and pursue 8-10 year deals anyway makes them delusional.

Usually, this is followed by an example of a player who, in the eyes of those making the argument, ended up being a long term waste of money. There’s a variety of players who fit this bill, but two of the names brought up the most are Albert Pujols and Jason Heyward.

It is true that these players did get big contracts, and it is true that they have not performed as well their teams had hoped, but that doesn’t mean that they’re particularly relevant to this conversation.

Let’s start with Pujols, who signed a 10-year $240 million deal with Angels at the age of 32.

The age disparity between Pujols when he signed his Angels deal and Harper/Machado, who will both be 26 next season, is so large that the contract is not worth discussing in the context of this situation.

At the end of an 8-year deal, Harper or Machado would be the same age that Pujols was in the third season of his contract, a season where he was a 4 bWAR player. That’s certainly not a bad looking back end of things, and it’s also all that needs to be said of Pujols in this context.

To bring up Jason Heyward makes a little bit more sense.

Heyward was the same age as Harper and Machado are now when he signed his 8-year $180-million deal with the Cubs. Prior to signing Heyward was coming off two straight 5+ bWAR seasons, and he seemed like a safe bet as the Cubs’ outfielder of the future. Since then he has not had a bWAR higher than 2.3, and he’s failed to reach 500 plate appearances in any of his Cubs seasons.

To start things on the most basic level let’s compare Heyward’s contract year and the three seasons that proceeded it with that of Harper and Machado; that’s 2012-2015 for Heyward and 2015-2018 for the other two.

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Over these periods Heyward slashed .273/.348/.433, while Harper and Machado slashed .283/.410/.543 and .284/.345/.511 respectively. As you can see the pair best Heyward in just about every offensive category.; both also double his home run total in a comparable number of plate appearances over the period, and are just generally on another level of offensive prowess.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to talk about Heyward over this period without mentioning his defense. This is an aspect of the game where Heyward is elite, and from 2012-2015 he had an average UZR of 14.38 and won three gold gloves.

Harper has, well, not been as good as Heyward in the field. From 2015-2018 he has an average UZR of -2.7, which is indicative of below average fielding, and his showing last year was particularly bad. This is certainly a deficiency in his game, and it’s often brought up by his detractors.

Both Harper and Heyward spent the majority of their defensive time in the right field playing for National League teams, so looking at their fielding numbers next to each other comparatively is easy. Machado, on the other hand, is an infielder who primarily plays third base, so the defensive demands he faces are very different.

From 2015-2018 his average UZR at third is was around 4.5, which is indicative of pretty good fielding. Pretty much if you’re trying to throw these three guys into fielding tiers you come up with Heyward being elite, Machado is pretty good and Harper is bad (or at least was over that span).

With all that in mind what really matters overall is how these players’ offensive and defensive skillsets offset, something that can be measured by FanGraphs RAR, a stat that gives a pretty good idea of the complete value a player adds to a team.

Over the periods we’ve discussed above Heyward, Harper and Machado racked up 174.2, 198.9 and 209.9 RAR respectively; as you can see, both rate significantly higher than Heyward, with their elite offense bringing more value than the difference between their defensive skillsets.

In essence, they’ve just been better players than he was in the periods leading up to free agency, so to compare them as if they’re apples to apples is silly.

Heyward was certainly good, but he wasn’t a perennial all-star like the other two. Say what you will about the contract he got, but it should have no real bearing on how teams act in regards to Harper and Machado.

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Long term contract situations, like players, are all unique, and to decry the concept as a whole when without factoring in age and performance is silly, and it’s something that we should all stop doing.