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||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 Fregosi, Cesar 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.