Last night, we saw both a pitcher's duel of epic proportions and an almost perfect storm of narratives all coming together in a way that baseball very, very rarely allows. The pitcher the St. Louis Cardinals traded away, facing off against the pitcher they decided to keep, who took the traded player's rotation spot, and by the way, the player the Cardinals traded the pitcher away in order to get also just happens to be having a pretty remarkable season himself, and stands very much at the nexus of what the Redbirds are going to do in building their team for the next five years. Or the next seven years. Or the next ten. Or all of those things, really.
And in the end, of course, we saw what we probably should have expected to see all along: both teams got what they wanted out of the deal, in pretty much exactly the way we've been saying. The Braves have an exciting young starter who has added to his repertoire just enough this season to improve the areas he was most lacking. The Cardinals have one of the best right fielders in baseball, a young starter who is probably even a few degrees more exciting than the one they traded away in the rotation (occupying a spot that probably would not have existed otherwise), and the best record in baseball by a fair margin. The Braves got better for the future; the Cardinals got better right now. Win fucking win, baby. Hannibal Smith would be thrilled with the situation.
However, I'm not all that interested in breaking down the pitching duel, in spite of its magnificence. Carlos pitched brilliantly. Shelby pitched brilliantly. Either one could have come away with the victory; luckily for us El Birdos managed to scratch across a run and bring home another W to hang on the wall of this magical season.
Rather, I wanted to take a quick look at the other component, the biggest component, of what is known to Cardinal fans as the Jason Heyward deal: Heyward himself. After all, the decision to either sign Heyward to a long-term deal befitting a player of his stature and age or make a qualifying offer and take the draft pick when he walks after the season is going to be one of the most pivotal points of articulation John Mozeliak has yet faced in his tenure as General Manager, certainly the biggest since the organisation declined to go above and beyond the offer the California Angels made to Albert Pujols to try and resign what people rightly saw at the time as a franchise-defining player. What to do about Heyward, and whether to hitch the organisation's collective wagon to his star for the better part of the next decade, is that level of decision.
First off, I would just like to stop for a moment and acknowledge just how brilliantly the acquisition of Heyward has worked out in shoring up the club's biggest weakness of 2014. We all know the immediate flashpoint for the Cardinals needing to acquire a right fielder from outside the organisation; no need to tread down that same path yet again. However, I do feel like it should be noted that, in 2014, the Cardinals received a cumulative contribution of negative 2.2 WAR from Allen Craig, Oscar Taveras, and Randal Grichuk, the three players to receive the major share of playing time in right field. Grichuk was the only player of the three to post a positive number; without him the hit to the Redbirds' win total was -2.8. In other words, the Allen Craig of 2011-2012 was a magnificent player, and the Oscar Taveras of a happier future would have been one himself. But in 2014, the Cardinals were hurt, badly, by their right fielders.
In 2015, Jason Heyward has received the vast, vast majority of playing time in right; enough that I feel no real need to factor in any other players when considering the positional production. He has been worth, according to FanGraphs' version of WAR, 2.5 wins already this season, putting him on pace for something in the 4.0-4.5 win range over a full season. Baseball-Reference likes Heyward even more; they have him worth 3.0 WAR already, which basically makes him something like a 5 win player or so for a full season. (Side note: bWAR leader for the Cardinals in 2015: Carlos Martinez, with 3.4 wins above replacement already.)
So, in going by the fWARs of all players involved, the Cardinals have already received close to five wins worth of value out of right field over what they got last year. If one marginal win's worth of value costs ~$7 million on the open market, Jason Heyward has given them something like $30 million worth of improvement. By the end of the season, that number could be something closer to $45 or $50 million, depending on just how well the J-Hey Kid performs the rest of the way.
I feel like I should pause for just a second and say something. I know I said I didn't want to go down the Oscar Taveras road today, and I don't. But in looking up the numbers for all of these players, I had to pull up Oscar's FanGraphs page. And while there were plenty of numbers to look at, it was the one on the age line that caught my attention this morning. Do you know that as of today, Oscar Taveras would have only been 23 years old for about one month and one week? God damn it that's young. Way too young to already be a memory. Fuck. I didn't mean to bring anyone down; I just couldn't let that pass by completely unremarked upon. So, so young. Damn it.
Of course, that's really kind of the 64 million dollar question, isn't it? Or, in this case, the 150 million dollar question. Or the 180 million dollar question. Or the 210 million dollar question. Or-- well, you get the point, right? How is Jason Heyward going to perform the rest of the season, and what will that mean for his contract status?
On the year, Heyward is hitting a quite robust .281/.334/.424 (.758 OPS, .330 wOBA), which in this offensively-challenged environment is good for a 111 wRC+, meaning he's been 11% better than a league-average hitter for the season, while playing his customarily delightful defense. He's walked in 7.1% of his plate appearances, which is significantly lower than his career mark of 10.7%, but has only struck out 16.7% of the time, also lower than his 19.0% career number. It's interesting to see Heyward putting the ball in play a fair amount more this season than in the past, since we know pretty unequivocally the Cardinals' coaching advocates a contact-oriented approach at the plate.
Those numbers, though, include the whole season, which is both the best way to judge a player and also much less fun to consider. In April, Heyward was just brutal. His very first game in a Cardinal uniform was awesome, as he collected three hits -- two doubles -- in five trips to the plate at Wrigley Field in the season opener, but after that April was absolutely the cruelest month for Jason. He ended April with a .217/.261/.349 line that had Cardinal fans from the BP on Tesson Ferry to the Mobil On the Run on Clarkson buzzing with worry, and frustration, and even some outright anger that the Redbirds had traded away early-season Cy Young candidate Shelby Miller for this bust of a right fielder. Bill of goods and Pig in a poke were both thrown around, I can almost guarantee. Heyward walked only five times in 88 plate appearances, a 5.6% rate. He struck out seventeen times (19.3%), which was actually right in line with his career K rate. The strikeouts were never really the problem; the complete lack of authority with which he was hitting the ball was. There were two home runs, if you're interested in positives.
Since the calendar turned to May, however, Jason Heyward has been a rather remarkable player. His triple slash line, over 278 plate appearances, is .302/.357/.448, which, in case you haven't yet had your coffee and don't feel like adding, gives us an .806 OPS. He has seven home runs in that time, which isn't amazing, but when bolstered by fourteen doubles and a triple, doesn't look so bad. His strikeout rate is just 15.8%, while his walk rate is 8.2%. And in case you enjoy watching stolen bases the way I enjoy watching stolen bases, Heyward has swiped 14 bags, while being caught just twice. That's an 87.5% success rate, if you're keeping score at home.
I will say that Heyward hasn't been nearly as good in July as he was in June; after he posted a monster .881 OPS last month, in July he's hit to the tune of just a .742, mostly due to a distinct lack of power this month. Anecdotally, it seems to me he's hit lots and lots of hard liners in July, but hasn't really elevated that much. Perhaps it's due to a change in the way pitchers are attacking him, or perhaps he's swinging at different pitches. I don't have data on that little bit; only my own subjective impressions.
Even as good as Heyward has been for much of this season, I have to say the lower walk rate is a bit strange to me. He came into the league as an almost preternaturally patient hitter, posting a 14.6% BB rate in his rookie season of 2010. It almost immediately dropped, but has been consistently over 10% nearly every year of his career (2012 being the sole exception, when it was 8.9%), until now. And as enjoyable as it has been watching Heyward hit this year, it would be even more fun if he was walking in ~11% of his trips to the plate.
As it stands, Heyward likely won't make it to 20 homers this season, preventing him from putting up the second 20/20 season of his career, which is kind of shame. Dumb, I suppose, to care about, but there's something appealing about those nice round benchmark numbers I can't help but admire. Nonetheless, this is a player who is likely going to be worth at least 4.0 wins in 2015. And if that is indeed the case, the Cardinals will have improved by something like six wins in terms of marginal value from 2014 by dealing away Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. Does that make it worth it? I don't know, honestly; there's a very good chance Shelby, if he stays healthy, could be worth double that before he hits free agency, with an outside shot at being worth three times that much. So that could hurt. Then again, win fucking win, as I said back at the beginning, so, you know. Maybe not.
The more important consideration, of course, is what those numbers mean for the future of Jason Heyward in a Cardinal uniform. After enduring an horrific start to the 2015 season, Heyward is back on track for a 4-5 win season, much the same as he's been worth the last couple years. Then again, that terrible start isn't exactly unique for Jason; his April OPS in 2014 was .609, and in 2013 it was .519. In other words, starting slow is kind of a thing for Jason Heyward, at least the last few years.
The Cardinals paid a very steep price to acquire Jason Heyward, and we saw last night just how steep that price could be, watching Shelby Miller breeze through the Cardinal lineup for 7+ innings without breaking much of a sweat. (Well, aside from the usual amount of sweat required by a July evening in St. Louis, that is.) However, there's a very real chance that, by the end of this season, the improvement the club will have reaped from bringing Heyward in will approach $50 million worth of value. Do the Cardinals pony up the dough to keep Heyward patrolling right field for the near future? Or do they take their one-year upgrade and a draft pick, and call it good? It's hard to say, honestly, at this point what the most likely outcome is. Gun to my head, I would say they find a way to keep the J-Hey Kid around. Matt Holliday is still here, after all, and that's pretty much just what happens when the Cardinals decide they really want a guy. It's going to be a big, big contract, though, and I can't say with any certainty the Cards are going to feel totally comfortable extending out as far as it's likely going to require.
But as for this year, and the impact the deal has had?
I'll say it one more time.
Win fucking win, baby.