Perception and Value, or Jason Heyward vs. Buster Posey

The year 2010 was a great year for baseball rookies. The names are well known: World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner; all-world talent Stephen Strasburgbehemoth Giancarlo Stanton; hustling Jason Donald. One could fill out All Star ballots for years to come with a list of these players. The two best that year, however, and the two who were thought to be the best for years to come, were San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey and Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward.

Both had fantastic rookie seasons. Heyward came out of the gate on fire, and did not really slow down. He hit .277 for the year with 18 home runs, 83 runs scored, 72 runs batted in, and 11 stolen bases. He finished in the top 10 in the majors with a whopping .391 on-base percentage. He was thought to take the mantle from Chipper Jones after his retirement, and comparisons to Hank Aaron were not entirely off-base.

Buster Posey starred as well. Though he had less at bats due to not being called up until one month into the season, Posey also raked: he hit .305 with 18 home runs and a .505 slugging percentage. At 23, he was already perhaps the best hitting catcher in the game.

In fact, both were so good that they, in effect, shared Rookie of the Year honors: Posey won the official Major League award voted on by the Baseball Writers Association of America and Heyward took home the hardware from the influential magazine Baseball America. Both were thought to be cornerstones for their franchises, and among the best in the game for many more years.

Well, that kind of happened, and it kind of didn’t.

For Posey, stardom was almost immediate. After winning the World Series in his rookie year, and an injury-riddled 2011 campaign, Posey has become everything people thought he would. He won the MVP in 2012, hitting .336 with 24 home runs and 103 RBI, has been the best hitting catcher in baseball, and led his team to two more World Series victories, in 2012 and 2014. He has been elected to the All Star team three times and been given a Silver Slugger award for being the best hitter at this position twice. Everything has been jake.

For Jason Heyward, it is enough to say that his career has not gone as expected. There is an argument to be made that his rookie year remains his best season. Sure, he hit 27 home runs in 2012 and has received two Gold Gloves. But for all his promise, for all the expectations that come with his pedigree and beginning his career with a mammoth three-run home run, most observers would say his career has been a disappointment. He has suffered injury-riddled seasons in 2011 and 2013, has seen his power diminish with each passing year and gone from middle-of-the-order threat to a top-of-the-order slap hitter. It is for this reason that the Braves refused to lock up Heyward with a long-term contract and traded him this winter to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Shelby Miller. That’s the thought, anyway.

To my mind, this is almost comically unfair to Heyward. The case can easily be made — in fact, I am going to make it — that Heyward has had just as successful a career as Buster Posey, despite the common perception.

Naturally, if we only look at the stats that show up in the box score, Posey has had a much better career. He is a career .309 hitter; Heyward is a career .266 hitter. Posey has hit 99 career home runs; Heyward has hit 95, but only 14, 11, and 11 the last three years. Even if we look at more advanced hitting stats, Posey is far and away dominant: comparing OPS+ (which takes on-base percentage and slugging percentage while including the hitting effects of each player’s ballpark and the era in which they played), Posey’s is a career 141; Heyward’s is a career 113.

By any of these metrics, Posey has been the better player, and indeed, he is the better hitter. And yet, if we compare them by WAR (wins above a replacement player), a far different story emerges. WAR is a statistic that tries to include all aspects of baseball into calculating a player’s value — you may remember the debate over who to give the American League MVP to, Los Angeles Angel Mike Trout or Detroit Tiger Miguel Cabrera. (Cabrera dominated the traditional metrics, but Trout, due to his edge in defense, baserunning, and position difficulty, dominated in WAR. Cabrera won the MVP twice until Trout’s traditional stats caught up and he won the award last year.) And according to WAR, Heyward and Posey are about even. According to the Fangraphs version of the stat, Posey has a career total of 28.5; Heyward’s is 25.5. The difference amounts to less than one win above replacement per season. Baseball-Reference’s version has Heyward as better than Posey: 29 to 28. How can this be?

For starters, Heyward is a far better base runner: With the exception of his two injured seasons, he has had double-digit stolen bases each year, including 20 the last two years, and more than half the time he has taken the extra base on a base hit. Posey, however, is another story: He has been a net-negative on the basepaths throughout his career, with only eight career stolen bases and taking the extra base one-third of the time.

Heyward also has a huge advantage defensively. Posey is not a bad defensive player in his own right, and he gets points for playing the tougher position. But Heyward is, by any metric, one of the best defensive right fielders in baseball, if not the best. His range was the best in baseball last year, he has 112 defensive runs saved over his career (Posey has 19 DRS), and take a look at his highlight reel!

Does all of this make up for Posey’s advantage in hitting? I think so, and here is one more reason for it — their hitting is not that far off. It can’t be denied that Posey has been the better hitter. But judged by a different metric — say, runs created — they are not all that far apart. Runs created (RC) is a stat created by Bill James that estimates how much a player has contributed to their team’s run total. As Joe Posnanski writes, it is perhaps the best way to measure offensive success. Well, by RC, Posey has certainly been successful: he has 470 career runs created. The surprising part is that Heyward is not far behind: he has 460 career runs created. In judging how well they have helped their team generate runs, which is what a hitter is supposed to do, Heyward and Posey have been judged to be roughly equal.

Taking away the perception of each player’s performance, we should still be talking about them like people talked about them in 2010. Both should be cornerstones for successful franchises for years to come. Both should be in the MVP discussion in most healthy years. Both should lead teams to pennants and World Series titles.

The Giants were smart enough to see that, and locked Posey up with a long-term contract — it’s decisions like this that have led them to three World Series titles in five years. The Braves traded away Heyward in an offseason binge where they traded away the bulk of their disappointing 2014 roster, giving up their 2015 results in an effort to be in a position to win again a few years from now. The Cardinals, the team Heyward was traded to, has the best record in baseball, and is one of the best-run organizations in baseball. Go figure.

 

Statistical Comparison

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