Are We Undervaluing the Slugger Now?

The crowd says that a baseball player who doesn’t occupy either center field or shortstop — and who has never hit 30 homers or stolen 30 bases — is about to get a $184 million contract. Our fearless leader thinks that contract is going to be the best value on the market this year. There are plenty of reasons to agree, not the least of which is that past big contracts have been at their best when given to young, athletic players with defensive value. Of course Jason Heyward checks all those boxes.

On the other hand, it’ll be a departure. Carl Crawford is the only other $100 million man who’s played something else besides an up-the-middle defensive position while also recording an isolated slugging percentage under .200. The sport usually gives nine-figure deals to players who slug or play great defense at a premium spot.

And while Heyward might play center field on his new team, there’s still evidence that we don’t value sluggers as much these days. Look at the crowd’s projection for Chris Davis, coming off a 41-homer season — it’s more than $80 million less than the one for Heyward. Mike Trout, Kyle Seager, Evan Longoria, and Elvis Andrus represent more than half of the $100 million contracts that started in 2015. None is your typical Big Bat.

So. Have we gone too far? Are we undervaluing the slow-footed, no-defense slugger? There’s other evidence we are.

Jeff Zimmerman recently re-did the positional adjustments in WAR to adjust for the current state of the game. He found something interesting: not only was the spread smaller, but the penalties we are giving first basemen and designated hitters might be too harsh. Look at our current adjustments next to Zimmerman’s findings this year.

WAR Defensive Adjustment Systems
Current Zimmerman
Catcher +12.5 +7.75
Shortstop +7.5 +4.75
Second Base +2.5 +1.75
Third Base +2.5 +1.75
Center Field +2.5 +1.75
Left Field -7.5 -4.25
Right Field -7.5 -4.25
First Base -12.5 -9.25
Designated Hitter -17.5 -9.25

Perhaps this chart has something to do with the change. There are fewer and fewer balls in play with every coming year.


With fewer balls in play, the spread between a great defender and a lesser one should be smaller. And the same should be true of defensive positional value.

Using these values, I re-ran this year’s Wins Above Replacement leaderboard for qualified batters only. It’s crude because it hasn’t been zeroed out or adjusted baseball-wide, but it can give us an idea of how the very best might look a little different if your defensive values were a little different.

The top of the leaderboard isn’t changed enough to affect the MVP races, or the top five players in baseball, really, but look at the most changed players. It’s obvious who they are, but it’s also instructive to see the amount of change.

2015 WAR With New Defensive Adjustment
Name Fielding Positional New Positional Offense Defense WAR newWAR diffWAR
Prince Fielder -3.7 -16.3 -8.9 12.4 -20 1.6 2.4 0.80
Evan Gattis -0.9 -15.1 -8.0 -3.8 -16 0 0.8 0.77
Billy Butler 0.9 -15.2 -8.1 -12.1 -14.3 -0.7 0.1 0.75
David Ortiz -0.2 -15 -8.0 21.6 -15.2 2.8 3.5 0.75
Kendrys Morales -0.4 -15.9 -8.5 14.7 -16.2 2.1 2.8 0.74
Alex Rodriguez -0.4 -14.7 -7.8 20 -15.2 2.7 3.4 0.71
Nelson Cruz -6.2 -11.4 -6.2 41.5 -17.6 4.8 5.4 0.57
Edwin Encarnacion 1.6 -13.3 -7.9 33.6 -11.7 4.5 5.1 0.57
Albert Pujols 3.4 -13.6 -8.6 7.3 -10.2 2 2.5 0.52
Jose Abreu -1.8 -12.9 -8.7 21.1 -14.8 3 3.4 0.45
Chris Davis 6.3 -11.8 -8.0 36.3 -5.5 5.6 6.0 0.40
Avisail Garcia -6.2 -7.6 -4.2 -16.1 -13.8 -1.1 -0.7 0.38
Jose Bautista -9.9 -8.9 -4.9 38.9 -18.9 4.5 4.9 0.37
Joe Mauer 0.7 -12.3 -8.7 -7.6 -11.7 0.3 0.7 0.37
J.D. Martinez 7.7 -7.8 -4.4 25.7 -0.1 5 5.4 0.37
Kole Calhoun 13.8 -7.1 -4.0 6.9 6.6 3.8 4.2 0.36
Carlos Santana 3.9 -12.2 -8.5 8.7 -8.3 2.4 2.8 0.35
Matt Kemp -17.2 -6.9 -3.9 8.1 -24.1 0.4 0.8 0.35
Melky Cabrera -7.4 -7.7 -4.3 -10.4 -15 -0.3 0.0 0.34
Mark Trumbo -1.8 -8 -4.6 2.4 -9.7 1.1 1.4 0.34

Prince Fielder gains almost a win. Evan Gattis goes from replacement level to worth something. Billy Butler finds replacement level.

And further on down, Chris Davis narrows the gap between himself (6.0) and Jason Heyward (6.3). Heyward’s still younger, and he’s still more valuable, but every bit of value is important here.

If position players generally lose about a half-win per year due to age-related decline, starting higher means ending higher. Looking past Davis’s Steamer projection, which he’s bested by triple in two of the last three years, that would mean potentially more than 22 wins over the next five years, worth even more than Dave Cameron’s $130 million estimate, most likely.

This sort of thing might help explain some of our recent findings that first basemen and sluggers have been overpaid. If the market continues to act differently, perhaps the market knows something we don’t. This could be part of catching up.

Aging is another part of the story, though. As Craig Edwards showed by looking at comps, and this aging curve for isolated slugging showed, and this aging curve for batted ball distance showed, power does not age well. If you’re still not convinced, here’s an aging curve for home runs per fly ball that Zimmerman just ran for us (a .02 change would take an 18% HR/FB number down to 16%).


Aging for first basemen and DHs is worse than for other positions. Between the ages of 29 and 34, first basemen lose 3.1 WAR according to research done by Jeff Zimmerman. That’s 25% worse than the population, and it takes a good deal back from any value they might get from changes in the defensive adjustment spectrum. Applied back to Chris Davis, for example, the first baseman aging curve, over a five-year contract, would cost him more than a win over the regular aging curve. He didn’t gain half of a win in value last year from the new spectrum.

So it’s a conundrum. Perhaps, looking backwards, we’ve stolen bits of value from sluggers at designated hitter and first base. You could add another ten wins or so to David Ortiz’s career value, for example, and it would help his Hall of Fame case, which looks good if you focus only on his bat, but traditionally suffers by WAR.

But going forward, which is what the market is most worried about, we probably haven’t been too far off when we call the Davises and Ortizes iffy bets. Power doesn’t age well, and those positions are all about the power.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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8 years ago

Are these new numbers going to be incorporated or just talked about?

Eno Sarris
8 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

Dunno yet. He did the work in-season and the offseason is traditionally when we change these types of things.