If you go by traditional stats, Jason Heyward is a pretty good ballplayer. Only once in six seasons has he hit above .277. Only once has he driven in more than 72 runs. Only once has he hit more than 18 homers. If we cherry-pick the best of his seasons, we get only .293 with 82 RBI’s and 27 homers. We get the sort of season Miguel Cabrera throws back.
If we go by advanced analytics, we find that Heyward has been — as ESPN Stats & Information notes — the fifth-most valuable position player in baseball over the past two seasons. The four above him: Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Paul Goldschmidt and Adrian Beltre.
Here’s guessing Theo Epstein is bigger on WAR than the old-school Triple Crown numbers. The Cubs president is handing Heyward $184 million over eight seasons. That’s $23 million per year. That’s a price the Braves could never have matched. That’s why they traded him 13 months ago.
Going by Baseball Reference’s version of WAR, Heyward has been nearly a six-win-or-better player in four of his six big-league seasons. A year ago, the aforementioned Cabrera hit .313 with 25 homers and 109 RBI’s. His WAR value was 5.0. Heyward hit — this in his final season as a Brave — .271 with 11 homers and 58 RBI’s. His WAR value was 6.2. That’s because WAR includes defensive and baserunning components; Heyward excels at both.
We went through the whole WAR-what-is-it-good-for debate — read Sam Miller’s story in ESPN The Magazine — in the Trout-Cabrera Most Valuable Player debate of 2012. (Cabrera won the Triple Crown and the MVP. Trout trumped him in WAR 10.8 to 7.2.) Even now, there are those who characterize WAR-lovers as pencil-necked geeks, but that charge sounds thinner with every passing season.
Even the front offices who aren’t big on all of the advanced analytics take a gander at WAR. If you make your living in baseball, you must. That hard-to-explain metric has become not just some funny little acronym but an industry standard. It tells us more about a player than watching every move a player makes over a 162-game season can. It tells us not what he does but what he’s worth.
If you watched Jason Heyward closely — and we around here watched him closely for five years — you might have thought, “Good player but not a great one.” And in many ways you’d be right. But in the grand scheme, you’d be wrong. Most close observers of the St. Louis Cardinals considered him the team MVP this season, and those Redbirds won 100 games.
How do you value Jason Heyward? Epstein’s team just placed an $184 million price tag on him, and the Cubs were good already. Think about it: Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, the really useful Ben Zobrist and now Heyward in the everyday lineup. Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey in the rotation. That should be one heck of a club for a good long while. Good thing the Braves aren’t in that division, huh?