The 2015 Chicago Cubs had a breakout season. Many rookie stars were called up to the show and performed exceptionally well, including Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler. There was veteran leadership from guys like Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester, David Ross, Miguel Montero, and even Dexter Fowler. But 2015 is over.
Changes have certainly come about for the Cubs. As is the case when dealing with the business side of baseball, not every player will be returning for the 2016 season, one of which is Dexter Fowler. Giving the perceived defensive liabilities at the corner outfield spots from Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber, who is a catcher by trade, this would appear to pose a serious issue, in terms of need for the ballclub. But, alas, as we all likely know by now, the Cubs signed Jason Heyward shortly after the conclusion of the Winter Meetings and intend to have him take over in CF, despite his being a Right Fielder by trade. So what will this change mean for the 2016 version of the Chicago Cubs? In other words, does having Jason Heyward make up for losing Dexter Fowler? In order to answer that question, we have to take a look at what level of production the Cubs were getting from Fowler. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers.
Defensively, according to multiple metrics, Dexter Fowler may have been one of the worst center-fielders in all of baseball in 2015. As a comparative analysis, using Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), you can get an idea how an individual performed at his position compared to other players at the same, or similar position. According to fangraphs.com, DRS is “a defensive statistic calculated by The Fielding Bible, an organization run by John Dewan, that rates individual players as above or below average on defense”. If you’re interested in learning more about DRS, visit http://www.fangraphs.com/library/defense/drs/
With the knowledge of what DRS is able to tell us, it’s rather surprising (at least it was to me) that amongst the 31 Center Fielders with a minimum of 500 innings logged at the position, only 3 players were worse than Fowler, who has a DRS rating of -12. Reference the chart below, for information on the tiers of single season DRS ratings:
The bottom line is that Fowler ranged somewhere between very bad and terrible in comparison to other centerfielders. Given the defensive woes of the other outfielders, I can’t say it’s particularly surprising that issues arose on fielding plays in the NLCS for the Cubs outfield. It was a matter of when, not if, something of that nature would happen, particularly in a playoff atmosphere where every mistake is amplified that much more.
I know what you might be thinking. “So what”, you say. “Fowler made plays. Fowler was a good dude”, and so on. Regardless of the fact that the latter may very well be true, the former most certainly was not. Compared to his peers, his did NOT make plays. Not very well, anyhow. It seems to me that this is not a great loss from a defensive standpoint, as Fowler was most literally one of the worst in all of baseball at his position. No, it’s not a fluke. Stop telling yourself that. Even if you expand the field to CF’s with 200 inning played, which would increase the field of players to 53, guess what? That’s right. He’s still only better than 3 people. Only Adam Eaton, Angel Pagan and Cameron Maybin were worse than Fowler, in regards to DRS ratings. “Well maybe it was just 1 bad season.” Nope, sorry. I reviewed DRS from all CFs from 2013-2015, and Fowler was dead last. Other statistics also support this assertion. Outfield Arms Runs Saved (rARM), “evaluates the frequency runners advance on hits and are thrown out trying to take extra bases” (fangraphs.com). Amongst qualified CF’s, once again, Fowler is dead last (tied). Kind of a moot point. The guy isn’t a good defensive center fielder. He is the Pedro Alvarez of CF, if you will.
Given this information, for further comparative analysis, let’s take a look at Jason Heyward in terms of defensive production. Well, to put it bluntly, he’s elite. In 2015, amongst all qualified OF’s, Jason Heyward ranked 3rd overall (+24), and since 2013, he ranks as the best defensive outfielder in all of baseball, with a cumulative DRS rating of +72.
Theoretically speaking, if you figure that Fowler cost the Cubs 12 runs and Heyward saved 24, we are looking at a shift of 36 runs that never score. That’s what Heyward could bring to the Cubs. Think of the impact on the pitching staffs, respectively. In 2015, the St Louis Cardinals had a league best ERA of 2.94, and the Cubs were 3rd in the majors with an ERA of 3.36. It may not seem like much at first glance, but that is nearly a half run worse than the Cardinals. Consider for a moment if the roles were reversed. If the Cardinals had Fowler and the Cubs had Heyward, in theory, the Cardinals ERA would have been 3.01 and the Cubs ERA would have been 3.14, which honestly could be the difference between a team winning a division or…well, finishing 3rd.
I think we’ve established that Heyward is going to be a great asset in terms of defense. What about offense? With the Cubs being better in the field, simply by Dexter Fowler not being on it, is it possible that the offense will be somehow diminished? In some ways, yes. In most ways that are meaningful and important – no. Dexter Fowler hit 17 homeruns compared to Jason Heyward’s 13. He also scored 102 Runs, compared to Jason Heyward’s 79. The homeruns are really relatively comparable. Hitting 17 versus 13, isn’t going to make enough of an impact to be noticed; particularly with guys like Rizzo and Kris Bryant around to keep the folks happy in the bleachers with plenty of souvenirs. The difference in runs, is almost certainly attributed to the fact that Fowler was batting in the leadoff spot, thus giving him more opportunities to get on base and be driven home.
I believe it is Heyward’s batting average that will be the biggest difference. Heyward batted .293, which was 43 basis units higher than Fowler at .250. The On Base Percentages were comparable, but Heyward’s was better. Slugging was comparable but, again, Heyward’s was better, and the same is true of wOBA. Heyward struck out much less than Fowler, at only 14.8%, compared to Fowler’s strikeout rate of 22.3%. All in all, Heyward’s offensive runs created was rated 121, compared to Fowler’s wRC+ rating of 110.
As defined by Fangraphs, at http://www.fangraphs.com/library/offense/wrc/
Conclusion? The Chicago Cubs are going to be significantly better on the defensive and offensive sides of the diamond with Jason Heyward, as opposed to Dexter Fowler. It is within reason that he could also help Jorge Soler learn the nuances of playing right field. Who better to provide guidance regarding the best techniques to utilize in right field, than the best right fielder in baseball? So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that, as much as I’d like to have kept Dexter Fowler, it was ultimately for the best. Jason Heyward is going to make the Cubs an exponentially better baseball team. Ultimately the goal is to win a championship. I honestly feel like Heyward is an important piece to make that dream, a reality.
Baseball is nothing if not a romantic sport. Every year, hope springs eternal for millions of baseball fans nationwide. We always find ourselves hoping, “If my team just made this trade”, or “if we can just sign this player or that player…we can win it all next year. I don’t care what it costs, just make it happen!” This is the sort of rhetoric that we, as baseball fans, sell ourselves. Why do we do it? Well, maybe it’s because we just love baseball. Perhaps we are just tired of getting heckled by friends and co-workers who happen to be fans of another team who has experienced more success, and deep down we’d really just like to rub their nose in it when our team climbs to the top of the mountain. Or, for some of us, baseball was a tradition passed down to us, and seeing our team win it all would fill us with a feeling of satisfaction which transcends sports…and logic, for that matter. Either way, we all just want our teams to succeed. But what is the best way for our teams to do this? Some say it has to be done with top-flight scouting and development of players in the farm system. Others think free agency can be the best tool to win NOW. Let’s take a look at the free agency side. The best way to do that is to look at the results from past players signed to big contracts. For the sake of this analysis, I will only be looking at players who have signed contracts, either via Free Agency or via contract extensions, in excess of $100M.
“To be candid with you, free agency hurts all sports. It’s great for athletes making an enormous amount of money. But to say it helps the sports, I don’t believe that.” -Jerry West
When we’re talking about baseball payroll, I think it’s important to provide a bit of context. In 2001, the highest opening day payroll in all of baseball was the New York Yankees, who were collectively paying their players a combined $109,791,893. Over the course of the next 4 seasons, the New York Yankees front office would increase their payroll in unprecedented fashion:
NYY 2001-2002 Payroll Increased 14.7%, ( + $16,136,690 )
NYY 2002-2003 Payroll Increased 21.3%, ( + $26,821,231 )
NYY 2003-2004 Payroll Increased 19.7%, ( + $30,085,699 )
NYY 2004-2005 Payroll Increased 12.7% ( + $23,102,926 )
NYY 2001-2005 Payroll increased: 87.6%, ( + $96,146,546 )
It was a year later, at the end of the 2005 season, leading into the 2006 season, that other organizations begin to really feel pressure to follow suit with this level of (over)spending. If not, the market would be solely controlled by the New York Yankees. Who knew how much further the Yankees were willing to push the envelope with free agent players? Since that time, the league average annual team payroll has jumped 71.5%, from $72.7M to $124.7M. In 2001, there were 3 teams that exceeded $100M annual payroll; in 2015, there were 22.
“I am dead set against free agency. It can ruin baseball.” -George Steinbrenner
So, the question remains, have teams been getting what they paid for? Have these bigger and longer contracts yielded more wins and better production? Have the players at least been equally healthy and productive as they were prior to signing these monster contracts? Let’s take a look.
For comparative analysis, I feel it is important to have a substantial sample size for each player, both before the big contract and during the big contract. Looking first at pitchers, we can survey performance analysis for the following players: Matt Cain, Johan Santana, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Barry Zito. These are the only pitchers who have had at least 4 years of MLB service time prior to signing a $100M+ contract and at least 4 years logged during said contract.
TABLE 1: SP Production Periods
This chart demonstrates that only Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia produced at a higher level during their contracts than they did in the 4 seasons prior. Unfortunately, the Yankees then signed Sabathia to another $100M+ extension in 2012, which essentially negated the positive output of the original contract, as his performance has had a significant fallout since that time. And with Cliff Lee, his production fell off sharply in the 3rd year of his contract. He did not play at all due to injury in year 4, and is not expected to play again.
So, what about injury history? Well, that is possibly the most telling trend of all.
TABLE 2: SP Injury Trends
As you can plainly see, these players have missed significant time, and in some circumstances they have been essentially non-existent. This isn’t to say that no pitcher is worth a large contract, as there are pitchers, such as Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez, who have been the healthy for the most part, and productive. I think it is important to consider, however, that neither Felix nor Cole Hamels were free agent signings. These guys came up with their respective organizations and were signed to long term extensions early on in their careers, Cole being 29 and Felix being 27. Also, both pitchers had logged 7 MLB seasons prior to signing their extensions. In nearly all other circumstances, even when a player manages to maintain their level of production, it seems as though it is offset by extended absences due to injury.
The same appears to hold true for hitters. Based on the numbers in the chart (below), only Troy Tulowitzki and Miguel Cabrera performed at a higher level after signing a large contract. Cabrera’s original contract with the Detroit Tigers was well worth the investment for the team, but the Tigers signed him to a massive extension that starts in 2016. Based on the trends of other players as well as his age, there is a high probability that this extension will most likely be mired by injuries, much like the extension period to which the Yankees signed C.C. Sabathia.
TABLE 3: Hitters Production Periods
TABLE 4: Hitters Injury Trends
The fact often remains, when teams sign a big name player, it is at the expense of losing home grown players. These teams have to find a balance between their ever-growing financial obligations from free agency signings and holding onto the young players they have mentored from the start. More often than not, this is an exercise in futility as they will be unable to afford the luxury of retaining their young players, upon the expiration of their rookie contract.
Upon reviewing the historical data, it’s difficult to understand why teams continue to raise the bar in regards to these free agent players. One could hypothesize that the signing of a big name player yields increased revenue through ticket and merchandise sales. This is a distinct possibility, however, I have to wonder at what point this no longer remains profitable for these organizations. In order to offset any potential losses in profit, it will be us, the fans, who ultimately incur the additional costs. These “losses” will be offset by the teams through increases in the price of tickets, concessions, merchandise, and parking. During the 2014 MLB season, the league-wide average ticket price was just under 28 U.S. dollars. This marks an increase of over 5 U.S. dollars from the average price in the 2007 season. The team with the highest average ticket prices in the 2014 season was the Boston Red Sox, whose tickets retailed at an average price of 52.32 U.S. dollars. The cheapest average tickets in the league could be found at the San Diego Padres, who sold their tickets at an average of 16.37 U.S. dollars.
So where does it stop? We pay more to go support our teams so they can overpay superstars who will likely not make enough of a difference to win a World Championship. At the current rate of increase, we could be looking at an average ticket price at some venues of $100 by 2025. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me and my team – I’m always hoping they play it smart…. Instead of playing it fast. That’s just me.