The Specter of Jason Heyward’s Contract Looms Over Manny Machado

Three winters ago, Jason Heyward was a young free agent, a relative rarity as most players make their debuts at 23 years old or older, while many other young stars sign contract extensions prolonging the wait to hit the open market. Heyward debuted at just 20 years old on Opening Day back in 2010 and moved through the arbitration process to become a free agent heading into his age-26 season. There hadn’t been a free agent like Heyward — that young and that accomplished — in more than a decade. Three seasons later, Heyward has put up just four wins rather than the four wins per year that was expected. And now a very similar player in Manny Machado is hitting free agency, and might not be receiving the offers he expected.

While Manny Machado isn’t Jason Heyward, he’s not Bryce Harper either. Machado just put up his best offensive season with a 141 wRC+, while Harper’s season was almost viewed as a disappointment despite him hitting a very similar 135 wRC+. Harper derives nearly all of his value from his bat, while Machado is a more balanced player, getting value from his bat and his glove. In that way, he’s a remarkably similar player to Jason Heyward when the latter hit free agency.

Manny Machado and Jason Heyward Through Age-25
Name PA HR BB% K% ISO AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Manny Machado 4074 175 7.3 % 16.4 % .204 .282 .335 0.487 120 30.2
Jason Heyward 3429 97 10.8 % 18.5 % .163 .268 .353 0.431 118 25.2

Machado got a one-third season jump on Heyward to begin his career and has almost never been hurt, leading to roughly an extra season’s worth of playing time and a five-WAR lead. Heyward walked more, while Machado hit for more power. Heyward’s baserunning exceeded Machado’s, but his good defense at a more difficult position evened out that baserunning deficiency. When Heyward hit free agency, there were some (including me) who argued that Heyward’s contract floor in free agency should have been something like $160 million, with a reasonable value potentially above $300 million based on his comps at the time. Heyward is the most recent player to point to when it comes to long-term deals not working out, even when signed at a young age. Setting aside that Heyward was hurt almost immediately, that the Cubs changed a swing that worked in 2015, and that Heyward will now be on his third hitting coach in four years, what Heyward really should be is another data point among potential Manny Machado comps.

Earlier this month, I took a look at some comps for Bryce Harper mostly ignoring his MVP season. Near the end of the piece, I noted just how great Harper’s overall comps were.

There are so few players like Bryce Harper in baseball history that it is tough to find a lot of good comparisons. In the past 100 years, there have only been 16 players within five WAR of Harper and also within 20% of his plate appearances. Of those 15 other players, 11 are in the Hall of Fame. Manny Machado is another player on that list, with the others being Jim FregosiCesar Cedeno, and Vada Pinson. The 14 players averaged 37 WAR from age-26 through age-35, with eight of the 11 players who played since 1947 hitting that average.

The same exercise with Machado yields slightly different results due to a difference in plate appearance and Harper’s half a win higher WAR total. We end up with 16 total players, including Machado and Harper. We lose Johnny Bench and Tim Raines, but gain Adrian Beltre, so the number of Hall of Famers is pretty close. Also added to the list is Jason Heyward, but even if we include Heyward’s 4.1 WAR and assume he will not generate any wins over the next seven seasons, the average WAR produced from 26 years old through age 35 is 34.8 WAR. That’s easily $300 million contract territory, and with seven of the 11 players since integration going above that mark, there’s a reasonable chance of hitting that mark with Machado.

On the other hand, if we were to admit that the valuations on Heyward missed the mark from some reason or another — like too much of his value being tied into defense or perhaps that debuting young isn’t as important as we thought — we can take a different angle to get a better perspective on Machado. The last set of comps look at only total value, go very far back in history, and take into account up to seven nearly full seasons for some players. Let’s start by narrowing things down a bit. We’ll look at Machado’s last four years, when he put up a 128 wRC+ and 21.7 WAR from age 22 through his age-25 season. To find good comparable players, we’ll look at non-catching position players from 1973-2008 with at least two wins at 25 years old, a WAR between 18 and 26, a wRC+ between 118 and 138, a positive defensive value, and enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Here are Machado’s comps.

Manny Machado Age-22 Through Age-25 Comps From 26-35
Name PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Off Def WAR
George Brett 5554 204 .316 .393 .535 148 317.4 14.9 53.7
Scott Rolen 5367 195 .284 .367 .492 124 172.9 131.4 47.6
Derek Jeter 6923 161 .317 .387 .456 125 247.2 -14.1 46.1
Chet Lemon 5059 151 .266 .352 .441 121 112.1 43.6 33.2
Cesar Cedeno 4007 78 .277 .342 .418 113 76.6 -41.2 17.5
Troy Glaus 3485 172 .255 .357 .485 120 81.6 -38.9 15.6
AVERAGE 5066 160 .286 .366 .471 125 168 16 35.6

Through 2008, six players have taken Manny Machado’s path at the same age. Two are Hall of Famers, and Scott Rolen should be a third. Even if we include more recent players who have yet to play through age-35, only Jose Ramirez and Ryan Zimmerman qualify and the latter drops the average by just a couple of wins. Machado is still pretty easily a $300 million value by this analysis assuming we start with a $9M/WAR evaluation. Now, let’s only use the last three seasons, where Machado put up 15.1 WAR and a 125 wRC+. Using similar PA, defense, and age-25 restrictions, with WAR between 12 and 18, and a wRC+ between 115 and 135 yields the following comps at age 26 through 35 years old.

Manny Machado Age-23 Through Age-25 Comps From 26-35
Name PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Off Def WAR
Chipper Jones 6165 312 .312 .413 .565 150 401 -33 55.3
Scott Rolen 5367 195 .284 .367 .492 124 173 131 47.6
Derek Jeter 6923 161 .317 .387 .456 125 247 -14 46.1
Andre Dawson 5839 260 .285 .332 .502 125 180 7 39.6
Ryne Sandberg 5416 185 .290 .353 .465 122 148 42 38.5
Robin Ventura 5405 223 .267 .363 .465 113 85 114 37.4
Willie Randolph 5500 32 .273 .368 .343 106 43 87 31.8
Eric Chavez 3217 123 .260 .339 .451 108 30 29 16.6
Troy Glaus 3485 172 .255 .357 .485 120 82 -39 15.6
Edgardo Alfonzo 3390 84 .280 .357 .422 106 31 7 14.4
Lloyd Moseby 3237 88 .251 .333 .405 103 25 -42 9.3
AVERAGE 4904 167 .279 .361 .459 118 131 26 32

Another very good group here, but it’s worth noting that Glaus, Chavez, and Moseby all posted WAR totals at age-25 at least two wins lower than Machado last year, so restricting this group further would yield a number even higher than the previous group. It is also worth noting that Jason Heyward, Dustin Pedroia, Nolan Arenado, and Ryan Zimmerman are all recent comps. Pedroia has been worth 33 wins over the past 9 years with Zimmerman worth around 14 over the past eight seasons, and including those two players only drops the average WAR by about one win. Arenado has already put up 11 wins in two seasons, we’ve discussed Heyward, and in the unlikely event that none of the four active players produce anything else, the group average still sits at around 28 wins. We are dealing with a very accomplished group whose average production would be worth well over $300 million over the next 10 years.

When we drop down to just the last two years of Machado, we should see the most pedestrian group given Machado’s lackluster 2017 season. Over the last two seasons, Machado has a 122 wRC+ with 8.8 WAR, so we’ll look at players between 112 and 132 wRC+ with between 7 and 11 wins, leaving the other parameters the same.

Manny Machado Age-24 Through Age-25 Comps From 26-35
Name PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Off Def WAR
Carlos Beltran 5748 252 .282 .368 .509 129 265.8 21.6 47.2
Alan Trammell 5279 132 .293 .359 .445 121 138 125.5 44.8
Andre Dawson 5839 260 .285 .332 .502 125 180 7.4 39.6
Dave Winfield 6301 256 .290 .359 .496 136 263.7 -112.4 37.6
Matt Williams 5155 261 .278 .327 .503 112 79 76 31.9
Dwayne Murphy 3989 142 .241 .348 .410 116 73 42.7 25.4
Dusty Baker 5407 166 .279 .346 .432 119 114.5 -62.1 24
Coco Crisp 4345 82 .260 .327 .393 96 31.8 20.9 20.3
Eric Chavez 3217 123 .260 .339 .451 108 29.5 29.3 16.6
Raul Mondesi 4571 201 .264 .330 .478 109 61.5 -49 16
Edgardo Alfonzo 3390 84 .280 .357 .422 106 30.5 6.7 14.4
Roberto Kelly 3915 98 .290 .338 .436 105 29.6 -68.5 9.5
Lloyd Moseby 3237 88 .251 .333 .405 103 25.1 -41.7 9.3
AVERAGE 4646 165 .273 .343 .452 114 101.7 -0.3 25.9

As we might expect given Machado’s 2017, this is the most disappointing group we’ve seen. It’s also still a group that might produce an average outcome in the $275 million range. There are three Hall of Famers up there with Beltran having a chance at four. The same caveats as above regarding Moseby and Chavez apply here, as well. Among active players, we still have Pedroia, Heyward, and Arenado, though we add Kyle Seager, who has averaged around four wins per season over the last five years despite a disappointing 2018 campaign. We also add Christian Yelich, who has just one season beyond 25 years old, but won the NL MVP with a 7.6 WAR year. Javier Baez and Xander Bogaerts also qualify, but are the same age as Machado.

If we only had Machado’s 2018 season as a comparison, this is what that group looks like:

Manny Machado Age-25 Comps From 26-35
Name PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Off Def WAR
Larry Walker 5127 277 .331 .416 .613 147 323 6 48.6
Alan Trammell 5279 132 .293 .359 .445 121 138 126 44.8
Bobby Grich 5209 158 .271 .375 .438 132 185 51 42.7
Andre Dawson 5839 260 .285 .332 .502 125 180 7 39.6
Ryne Sandberg 5416 185 .290 .353 .465 122 148 42 38.5
Tim Raines 5808 107 .294 .385 .429 125 221 -53 36.8
Willie Randolph 5500 32 .273 .368 .343 106 43 87 31.8
Jesse Barfield 3456 153 .250 .336 .456 115 58 71 24.7
David Wright 3824 112 .286 .366 .458 128 127 -16 24.1
Marcus Giles 2190 38 .273 .348 .405 100 12 8 9.2
AVERAGE 4765 145 .285 .364 .455 122 143 33 34.1

These are the wildest results we’ve seen with a bad Marcus Giles, a good but injury shortened run from David Wright, a decent run from Jesse Barfield, and then near-Hall of Fame or better runs from the seven remaining players. Of the more recent players, Evan Longoria, Ryan Zimmerman, Hanley Ramirez, Kris Bryant and Matt Chapman also fit the bill. Even including the first three more recent players doesn’t drop the average below 30. Of note, Jason Heyward is not a comp in the last group, as Machado’s 141 wRC+ was significantly higher than Heyward’s age-25 season and at least 20 points higher than every season Heyward has put up since the right fielder’s 134 wRC+ in his 2010 rookie campaign.

Jason Heyward might show some similarities to Manny Machado, but that contract and the results the last three seasons shouldn’t scare people away from Manny Machado. Heyward is still young enough that he could turn his contract around, but that also shouldn’t matter for Machado. The current free agent has better comps than Heyward and is coming off a much better season. Even with similar comps, Heyward is still just one data point among multiple Hall of Famers. Players who hit like Machado, play solid defense, and perform well in their early to mid-20s tend to keep doing so. The same should be expected of Machado, as well.

We hoped you liked reading The Specter of Jason Heyward’s Contract Looms Over Manny Machado by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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HandsomeBoyModel
Member
HandsomeBoyModel

Jason Heyward is why I don’t WAR seriously when it comes to defense. Sorry, other than them hitting free agency at young age, there is no comparison.

kbn
Member
kbn

I think Heyward is a better cautionary tale about how it’s dangerous to tinker with swings, especially with certain types of players. He still plays superlative defense.

Number20
Member
Number20

I’m not sure we can say he still plays superlative defense. His defense has been declining since it peaked in 2014 (at 26 DRS, 19.4 UZR). Last year, he had 6 DRS, 4.8 UZR. I don’t know if that has anything to do with his batting struggles, but I believe defense doesn’t age as well regardless.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

There’s also the fact that, inarguably, it’s far easier to find an average defensive COF than an average hitter.

The most basic principle of economics, supply and demand, makes offensive runs above average more valuable than defensive ones.

dl80
Member
dl80

I’m not so sure. He’s gone from an outstanding right fielder to just a good one in the last 2 years. He was 8th in DEF among right fielders with 400+ PA last year. That’s good, but with a 99 wRC+, he’s nowhere near worth the salary.

jwa05001
Member
jwa05001

The Cubs didn’t do anything to his swing. They started 2016 hoping he’d do exactly what he did at the plate in 15. Why would they want to make any adjustments?

His 2016 line? 230/306/325. 68 OPS+. This is a guy you just gave 200 million dollars. You HAVE to tinker with his swing at that point.

tb.25
Member
tb.25

I don’t WAR seriously either. In fact, I only ever WAR for fun, like in video games such as Civilization 5.

v2micca
Member
Member
v2micca

I like to WAR in Civ 6 as well. And you can pretend that you are the one killing Sean Bean this time.

insidb
Member
insidb

Thank you for your service.

LMOTFOTE
Member
LMOTFOTE

Well at least he has improved his BA, OBA, and SLG each of the last 2 seasons….

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

Eh. The issue with comparing them rests largely on the fact that, upon hitting FA, Heyward had zero seasons in the previous 5 years with a wRC+ above 122.

Machado has three above 130.

…then there’s the fact that defensive runs are much, much more “replaceable” in the COF than 3B/SS, as literally every decent defensive CF under 30 demonstrates, if asked to switch positions.

At the time of his FA, Heyward was a hair better than Lorenzo Cain offensively…and valued equally defensively, despite his inability to play CF.

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

Could Heyward have played a decent CF if asked? We don’t know.

Alex
Member
Alex

We don’t know if he could or couldn’t but we know he doesn’t and that means a hell of a lot more than a hypothetical.

apostle87
Member
apostle87

Considering Heyward has more than held his own in a super small sample in CF, it appears to support his value as an elite COF defender. He has a career UZR/150 of 13 runs in the OF. That is 1.5 WAR/year in defense alone.

The issue is he hurt his wrist early in 2016, and I still don’t think he has figured out his swing since recovering.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

Also capable of providing that defensive production in RF:

Any above average MiLB CF.

apostle87
Member
apostle87

If that were true, no one would have offered him an 8 year contract. Or do you think your beloved Theo was so bad at valuing his defense that he was the only one willing to make that offer?

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

Oh, the contract was predicated on Heyward’s also being able to provide offense a tick better than Lorenzo Cain’s, with potential for growth.

Being able to provide a 100 wRC+ in the MLB is much, much more difficult than being an elite defensive COF.

If he put Albert Almora in RF full-time, he’d likely outproduce the Cubs version of Heyward, according to the current WAR methodologies, because the COF adjustment fails to accurately capture the gap in average defensive range.