Andrew McCutchen is a four-time All Star, Gold Glove winner, and reigning NL MVP, and if the season ended today he’d be a strong candidate to join Barry Bonds as the only Buccos to win two, depending on what the voters disregard more: Cutch’s overall game, Troy Tulowitzki’s numbers, or Clayton Kershaw being a pitcher. Cutch also earns a paltry 7.25 million this year and will earn just under 52 more through 2018.1 In fact, he might just be the best bargain in baseball2 if not for another NL outfielder roaming right field just a daytrip down Interstates 85 & 81 in Atlanta. Jason Heyward is an All Star, a Gold Glove winner in 2012 and likely again in ‘14, and has his own argument to be included in the NL MVP discussion. And, like McCutchen, he is criminally underpaid, making just 4.5 million this year and 7.8 million in ’15 before his ‘16 walk year.
Early the Laurel Grows
McCutchen is 27 to Heyward’s 24, but the two have accrued the same in service time (four years and change) as Cutch wasn’t promoted to the big leagues until June of 2009. In their first two seasons, Cutch accumulated 4.7 fWAR to Heyward’s 4.6, and that owes largely to a miserable 2011 for Heyward where he hit just .227/.319/.389 with a wRC+ of 96. His OPS+ sat at just 93 by far and away the lowest of his career. No one would ever call Heyward a bust, not after a rookie season where he earned 4.6 fWAR, had a wRC+ of 134 and an OPS+ of 131 (both career bests), and made the All Star team, but he was firmly in the grips of the proverbial sophomore slump, which could be evidenced by his swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone as pitchers adjusted.
McCutchen saw no such dip in his numbers. Neither in his sophomore year nor in any season continuing forward. In fact, Cutch’s evolution as an offensive dynamo has been uncanny in his ability to consistently get better. Look at the chart below and marvel at his continued growth:
McCutchen Yearly Offensive Production
It may seem strange to toss in home runs along with all the advanced metrics, but I thought a more traditional statistic would help illustrate his evolution as a hitter. In his early years he was a rangy outfielder with some pop to a consistent 20/20 middle of the order bat who if things broke just right would make it 30/30. There’s nothing traditional about Cutch except that he’s basically become great at being good at everything.
McCutchen’s emergence as a feared batter happens to coincide with his continued improvement against hitting fastballs. Since his rookie season, where he hit .300 with a .513 slugging against the fastball, he turned that into .370 and .589 in 2013, going from nine home runs to 16. His improvement has been particularly noteworthy against right-handed pitchers where he hit just .268 with six home runs against the fastball to .373 with 14 homeruns last year. The give and take of baseball is an interesting one, however. As McCutchen has improved, pitchers throw him the fastball less often than before. Now McCutchen sees a fastball around 58-59% of the time as opposed to 65-70% of the time in previous seasons.
These numbers don’t exist in a vacuum. McCutchen has continually improved while the league, as a whole, has regressed. Look at the offensive trends for outfielders since 2009 through 2013:
League Yearly Offensive Production
Since we’re discussing relative value, a player that improves yearly as the league gets progressively worse would make a claim to provide even more value than originally thought. Cutch gets better as the other outfielders around him take steps back.
Heyward has found his own success at the plate. Here is how Heyward is similarly represented:
Heyward Yearly Offensive Production
Heyward’s progress hasn’t been as linearly steady as McCutchen’s (he’s failed to relive his rookie year bests except for home runs), but he’s been around 15-20% more valuable than your average Major League player offensively. Unfortunately, Heyward was hit in the jaw last year by a Jonathon Niese fastball and missed 26 games, so his numbers seem a little light in certain areas (WAR particularly), but he was having a good year at the plate.
Unlike with McCutchen, pitchers haven’t been forced to adjust as much with pitch variety. Both lefties and righties tend to attack him early in the count with fastballs and with two strikes lefties either throw fastballs or breaking pitches while right handers mix in a bit more offspeed. For his career, Heyward has hit right handers at a pretty steady .296 clip while his success against left handers has been more up and down.
While Heyward has been an above average producer at the plate, his true value comes from his ability as a defender. Dating back to 2010, there’s not a right fielder in MLB that comes remotely close to Heyward in terms of UZR. In fact, his 74 tops all outfielders by a large margin, and if you want to get even geekier, his ability to reach 63.2% of plays that are considered unlikely (10-40%) for a fielder to make is second only to Mike Trout’s 66.7%. He’s fourth over that timespan for right fielders in terms of plays considered remote (1-10%) at 9.1%. In other words, he’s something of huge asset manning right field for the Braves. But, since this is the Natty, here’s a beautiful, magnificent table to put those numbers into perspective:
Heyward Defensive Metrics
Rtot is a stat to measure total fielding runs above average while RF/9 is range factor (putouts + assists) multiplied by nine and divided by innings played. Heyward’s reputation in the field isn’t just hype. He’s been consistently good over the years.
Defensive metrics aren’t as favorable to McCutchen as they are to Heyward. While he did win a Gold Glove in 2012, McCutchen has been prone to errors (he’s led the Majors once for centerfielders and been in the top 4 four times). Since 2009, Cutch’s UZR of –24.5 ranks him 10th in the Majors for centerfielders, just ahead of Adam Jones and Dexter Fowler, while his 26 errors are tied for second with Colby Rasmus, eight behind Jones, and if you’re wondering if the majority of those are throwing errors, think again. His fielding to throwing errors splits are 18/8. McCutchen has made 46.7% of plays considered unlikely (tied for third with Jacoby Ellsbury over that span) while he is tied for second with Carlos Gomez in making 16% of remote plays. McCutchen’s defensive metrics are below:
McCutchen Defensive Metrics
McCutchen won a Gold Glove, but by all accounts he’s not the strongest of defenders. The numbers certainly back that up as well.
Their Average Better Than Good
Since McCutchen came into the league in ’09, he’s earned the most in terms of fWAR by an outfielder.3 During that span, his wRC+ of 143 is fifth and his wOBA of 0.381 is seventh. He also happens to sit 13th for stolen bases, sixth in batting average, and Cutch is one of only four players (Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, and Ryan Braun the others with Trout soon to join them) to have hit the century mark in both stolen bases and home runs during that time span. It’s his combination of speed, power, and hitting ability that makes him so dangerous.
What’s fascinating about McCutchen is that over the last 5+ years, his worst season in regards to fWAR is still nearly a full win higher than the median value of all qualified outfielders. Even if you count his 2009, when he didn’t qualify for the batting title, his 3.3 fWAR eclipsed the median of 2.6 and mean of 2.81. Of all his qualifying seasons, only his second season would even fall within the middle 50% for WAR by outfielders. Perhaps a few images will help illustrate the point. The first is a boxplot for the average range of values expected from your typical outfielder.
Those circles to the far right are the outliers, and the two farthest from belong to Mike Trout. Now, here’s the boxplot representing McCutchen:
Cutch’s median season of 5.40 sits well outside the typical season of 2.6. Knowing he’s good is one thing. Seeing the pretty pictures to explain just how much better he’s been is something else entirely.
What about Heyward then?
Since the beginning of 2010, Heyward is 7th in total WAR with both his wRC+ of 117 and wOBA of .345 tied for 33rd. His 82 home runs are 30th. As stated earlier his UZR is tops for all outfielders. In terms of seasonal data, not much has changed lopping off a year. The median value for WAR is 2.6 while the average has risen slightly to 2.82.
Heyward had his one poor season where he came in at 2.0, but when we consider only the seasons where he qualified for the batting title, Heyward’s average season is worth 5 WAR with a median value of 4.6. Take those numbers with the proverbial grain of salt, however, since we’ve essentially reduced him down to three qualifying seasons, including this one where we’re only 2/3 of the way through. Still, the boxplot sure looks impressive, so I’ll include it too.
Pot ‘O Gold
I won’t insult you by trying to pretend to be a salary cap maestro, but I’ve come across figures over the years that estimate teams pay anywhere between 5-7 million a year for a win via free agency. I’m sure those numbers are accurate all things considered, but I wanted to see what teams are paying for outfielders these days.
I took all the players that qualified as outfielders from 2009-13 (via FanGraphs), divided the sum of all salaries by total wins above replacement and came up with a figure just shy of 2 million dollars per win. Despite what a free agent may cost, teams received a lot of value from players making the rookie minimum or in those pre-arbitration years. I then took Sean Lahman’s database, found the salary for all players who actually played a game in the outfield from between 2009-13, and multiplied the salary by games played divided by 162. The formula looks like this: Salary * (GP / 162). This gave me the exact figure for money actually spent per game, and I then divided that by total WAR. That figure came out to just under 1.7 million ($1,678,021.50 to be exact).
So, all told, it looks like teams actually spent around 2 to 1.7 million dollars per win in the outfield. Apparently there’s a significant premium when signing players in the open market, making free agents a pretty inefficient acquisition all things considered.
I’m surprised the Braves haven’t tried to lock up Heyward with a deal similar to the 8-years and 135 million dollars they signed Freddie Freeman to this offseason. Heyward signed a two-year deal to buy out his remaining arbitration years, so perhaps that’s where he wanted to end negotiations. After all, in ’16, Heyward will be just 25 years old, entering his prime, and in a fairly enviable position as being both extremely young and extremely talented. The Braves will have first crack at resigning him of course if they want to. Justin Upton also becomes a free agent that year, and as things stand now, he might be the cheaper option of the two if they can’t sign both. They also have a multitude of arbitration cases forthcoming with Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, et al.
With Heyward entering free agency so young you can imagine there would be a bidding war for his services. Perhaps not, though. The Dodgers will still have a glut of outfielders and a team payroll north of 160 million; the Yankees are always a possibility as they might have a need in right, depending on Carlos Beltran. He’ll be in the last year of 3-year deal, but it’s the Yankees. They do what they want. The Angels will have 45 million committed to Josh Hamilton and Trout, but Hamilton has been playing left lately, and an outfield with Trout and Heyward would instantly make a pitching staff better.
Those are the teams that have been spending big of late, but according to Spotrac, there are so many teams that will have cash available to spend in ’16 that it would take another article or two just to break down the relative merits of each. Detroit, Boston, Toronto, and Washington are just a few.4 One interesting team is the Baltimore Orioles. The O’s will likely use the 2 million dollar buyout on Nick Markakis after this season rather than pay 17.5 for 2015, money they can spend on resigning J.J. Hardy and Chris Davis, so they may have a need in right. The O’s haven’t traditionally been in on signing the big ticket free agents, so the chances are remote.
McCutchen will enter ’18 at the age of 31 if the Pirates don’t pick up his option, not quite past his prime but definitely entering a time when teams will likely try to limit their exposure. Unlike with Heyward, who is probably looking at a 7-year deal, a team might try to offer McCutchen 3-4 years and hope for no more than five.
If things were to stay the same, the only team projected at this time to have a cap figure over a 100 million is the Dodgers, and somehow they’ll still have Kemp, Ethier, and Puig on the payroll entering ’18. Three years from now is a long time, so projecting who could possibly offer Cutch a contract then is a fool’s errand. Every team is a possibility. Even though you’ll be buying into those declining years, it’s difficult to imagine that he still won’t be worth 3-4 wins a year at that point. While no comp is perfect, if you look on Baseball-Reference, McCutchen’s top comparable player by age is Carlos Beltran, and by the age of 31 Beltran was still a good player, but he wasn’t the WAR producing machine he was in his late 20s.5 If there’s a player that is a good argument for paying McCutchen well, though, it would be Reggie Smith, another comp. Smith had some very good years in his 30s, posting 6.5 and 4.6 fWAR in his 32-33 year-old seasons and 4.2 as a 35-year old for the Dodgers.
It’s impossible to say where Andrew McCutchen will be playing in 2019 (in ’18, he’ll most likely be manning one of the corner outfield spots in Pittsburgh), but it’s safe to say the contract extension he signed in 2012 was one of the Pirates brightest ideas in a while. Now, after his last two seasons (and this current one) it looks like an absolute steal.
If he were to enter the free agent market in 2016 like Heyward, he would easily top the 20 million a year barrier and would probably near 25 million a year. Ellsbury received 21+ a year for 7-years and he essentially had two good seasons intermingled with long stretches on the disabled list.
Heyward, however, is positioned perfectly. He may be undervalued right now, but let’s just say he’s set to become extremely wealthy. It’s just extremely rare that a player with his skills who still seems like he hasn’t become half the player he can be enters the market at such an early age. If he signed for six years, he’d still make gobs of cash and be ready to resign when the new television deal is set to expire in 2021. By waiting, getting some financial security without relinquishing all of his prime years, Heyward looks poised to sign a deal for 100 million plus with an opportunity to sign another soon after.
- 2018 is actually a team option for 14.75 million that the Pirates will certainly pick up. ↩
- Yes, I know that Mike Trout only makes one million this year and 5.25 in 2015. He’s unquestionably the best bargain, dollar for win, in the game, but he’s also going to get much more expensive in 2016 and every article on the internet cannot revolve around just how wonderfully cheap Trout’s contract is. Also, Paul Goldschmidt and Josh Donaldson are extremely underpaid, but this article isn’t about players in the first few years of their big league careers. Another article is forthcoming that explores the best values in the game. ↩
- Ben Zobrist actually sits in first, but since he plays all over the diamond and is used primarily at second base now, I’m saying Cutch is number one. ↩
- The Nationals will be dealing with resigning Bryce Harper, a Boras client, and however much it took to resign Stephen Strasburg, another Boras client, so that 50 million in projected salary will likely be much, much higher. ↩
- Beltran also had knee surgery in 2010 that kept him out of action until July of that year. I think it’s safe to say he hasn’t been the same player since. ↩