BOCA RATON, Fla. • There was a time, not too long ago, before the advent of Runs Saved and route efficiency when defense was solely in the eye of the beholder, not bytes in a database.
Baseball offered monochromatic and misleading stats like errors and fielding percentage to audit its fielders. But as the business of baseball has become more analytics-driven, evolving from Moneyball to today’s Big Data, a good glove, like on-base percentage before it, was a value play. Ask the Kansas City Royals. There now is a full palette of colorful metrics available to understand defense, and once a team gives a stat a name eventually the market will give it a dollar sign.
The cost of saving runs is going up.
“I think we’re heading in that direction,” Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “That just means we’ll have to find a different way to dodge. A different veer to take. We’ll need to continue to find ways to exploit inefficiencies, and for a little while I think that (defense) might have been one of those inefficiencies. Now you see, whether it’s trying to acquire a player via trade or arbitration or the free-agent market, it’s being valued more than it has in the past.”
This winter’s free-agent market started revving to life this past week during the general manager meetings at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, and it could be the tipping point for glove money. One of the more prominent and talented players available, Cardinals outfielder Jason Heyward, derives his value from his age, his potential, and his defense. Heyward reaches the open market with the highest WAR (Wins Above Replacement) from 2015 of any available hitter. The number attempts to quantify a player’s total contribution to a team in terms of wins, and Heyward’s 6.5 edges Yoenis Cespedes’ 6.3.
Both outfielders won a Gold Glove award this past week, but 30 percent of Heyward’s WAR came from defense. Only two players in the top 10 for WAR this past season had a higher percentage from defense than Heyward. With right fielder Heyward and KC’s gifted left fielder Alex Gordon both on the market this offseason, it means that two of the outfielders set to receive paydays fit for elite hitters aren’t traditional middle-order hitters.
Times have changed.
“I think there is more confidence in defensive metrics,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “I think investments are made by what you need. … It’s easier to quantify (defense) and therefore you can square that circle. Does that mean you’re going to be paying more for it? Is that your question? My answer is it’s not necessarily more weight, it’s that you have more confidence in the outcome.”
Mozeliak met with Heyward’s representatives, Casey Close and Victor Menocal, during the GM meetings to begin a process of negotiation that could take time. Neither party would comment on the substance of the talks.
The most significant stat driving the market for Heyward isn’t RBIs or OPS or even a defensive number like UZR. It’s DOB. At 26, Heyward is the youngest free agent baseball has seen in a generation. The presumptive National League Rookie of the Year winner, Cubs slugger Kris Bryant, turns 24 in January. The reigning winner, Mets starter Jacob deGrom, is older than Heyward, at 27. Gordon will be six years older on opening day. Heyward could draw offers ranging anywhere from seven years to 10 years as a result of his age, and the total value of the deal will reflect the length. The contract also is likely to include an opt-out clause to allow him access to free agency again after three, four, or five years.
What interested teams could offer as a salary could be similarly diverse, depending on the price tag the team puts on the player Heyward has been and the teams that could affix a price on the player they think he could yet become. He’s the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” of the market — the independent film with wow effects and potential that changes expectations and goes on to be a box office smash.
His defense, in any equation, is the given.
“It benefits everybody when you’re doing your stuff (on defense),” Heyward said Wednesday after winning his third career Gold Glove. “You can hit. Big hits are going to happen. But when you help a teammate by taking away a hit, taking away those big hits, it’s like you’re doing something to take pressure off the pitcher. It’s nice that people see value in that.”
There have been 68 deals in baseball history worth at least $90 million, and 20 have gone to outfielders. Sixteen were middle-order engines, like Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton or Manny Ramirez or the Cardinals’ $120 million man Matt Holliday. One of the others went to uber-talent Ichiro Suzuki and two others went to speedsters. Some have been elite defenders as well but until now the bat has been the bread-winner.
No right fielder had more Runs Saved in 2015 than Heyward’s 22 this past season, and since 2012 the leaders in Runs Saved were shortstop Andrelton Simmons (112), Heyward (89), and Gordon (74). It cost the Cardinals starting pitcher Shelby Miller and a prospect to acquire Heyward and his glove a year ago, and the rising cost of defense was apparent Thursday when the Angels packaged established and rising talent to acquire Simmons from Atlanta. If teams can assign talent to trade for defense, agents can assign dollars.
“It’s value that teams recognize and as more and more teams recognize it then more and more teams are willing to pay for it,” said Jeff Luhnow, the Houston Astros general manager and former Cardinals executive. “The days are gone of (the Cardinals a decade ago) getting David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek based on an appreciation of their defense that was a little bit a few years ahead of its time. It’s hard to do these days. Teams understand so much more information and are able to better assign a value. Eventually money finds the value.”
There have been teams that have attempted to capitalize on the market efficiency for defense. The Pittsburgh Pirates, in the National League Central, have identified the need for athletic outfielders and still have avoided paying a premium for that priority by developing talent. The Royals won the World Series championship this year with a roster that was first focused on defense, which was designed to take advantage of their larger ballpark and the good glove return they could get on lower investments.
The Texas Rangers anticipated defense and baserunning becoming more expensive in the open market as the statistics became better when they signed shortstop Elvis Andrus to an eight-year, $120 million extension. Baked into that deal was market inflation for defense, general manager Jon Daniels said Tuesday. “We were betting on it,” he said.
Shortstop has been a position where teams were willing to pay for defense before front office got their calculators out. Agent Scott Boras described how his company’s metrics also like to factor in “the level of frequency” for each position. A shortstop has among the highest frequencies of plays and thus can influence more of the game than an outfielder, where Boras argued there’s the “lowest frequency.” It should be noted he represents Chris Davis, one of the market’s few bona fide sluggers who plays first base and was advertised by Boras as the best infielder and outfielder available.
He’s the kind of hitter the open market was made to evaluate. Teams pay for run production. Savvy teams found run prevention. In an era of suppressed offense, the exchange rate is narrowing between a run scored and a Run Saved.
But it’s still not even.
Defense will always have some catching up to do.
“I do think clubs involved in players like (Heyward and Gordon) are because it helps complete the club,” an American League executive said. “It’s hard to say who will just go all-in to get those guys. You’ve got to have a solid group already so defense will just help at the times when you’re not scoring runs. It’s what keeps you in games.”