February 8, 2010 at 2:40 pm by Capitol Avenue Club under Atlanta Braves
Should the Braves begin the 2010 season with Jason Heyward as their starting right fielder? It’s a complicated question that deserves a complex answer, or at least a blog post full of mostly bullshit, given the uncertainty of it all.
At this point–and barring an unexpected (at this point) Johnny Damon signing or some other scenario that involves Frank Wren waving a wand and an outfielder coming out of a hat–it appears that the Braves will begin the season with Jason Heyward in RF. The organization isn’t saying that, of course. They’re saying things like, “We’re going to give him the opportunity to win the job this spring”. Which, to me, means they’re going to give him the job. There was a somewhat similar scenario last season when Jordan Schafer was given the opportunity to win the starting CF job, and he won it out of camp. He was actually probably the best outfielder on the team at 22 years old until he hurt his wrist and hid the injury from the organization for nearly two months, which speaks volumes about the quality of the outfielders the Braves possessed last spring. Anyway, I digress.
The outfield depth chart is significantly better than it was a year ago, but Heyward could still be a huge upgrade to the roster. First of all, let’s look at who he’d be replacing.
On the roster, he’d be replacing some run-of-the-mill AAAA outfielder, probably. That’s who would sit in his roster spot for the first couple of months while his service clock doesn’t tick in Gwinnett. However, that alleged AAAA outfielder wouldn’t be playing very much, Heyward would be the team’s starting right fielder.
If Heyward fails to win the job out of spring training, the Braves will likely enter ’09 with an outfield alignment of Diaz-McLouth-M. Cabrera, left-to-right. If he does, we’re looking at a Diaz/Cabrera platoon in LF, McLouth in CF, and Heyward in RF. So, if Heyward makes the team, Diaz doesn’t hit against righties and Cabrera doesn’t hit against lefties. Cabrera doesn’t have much of a platoon split, but he’s hit .255/.325/.355/.680 against lefties and .275/.333/.397/.730 against righties in his career. A RF’er sees ~60 PA’s against LHP over the course of two months, so that’s 60 PA’s from Melky at .255/.325/.355/.680 to Heyward. Diaz? Enormous platoon split. He has hit .276/.334/.387/.722 against RHP, which is below-average for a corner OF, but he has hit .347/.384/.537/.921 against LHP in his career. It’s not a BABIP thing, probably, it’s absurdly high for both splits, he just strikes out a bunch more against RHP and doesn’t hit the ball as hard (9 fewer doubles, 12 fewer homers in 52 more PA’s). The 140 PA’s Diaz would see against RHP go to Heyward.
So, essentially, you’re talking Diaz and Cabrera’s weak platoon sides and throwing them away. Combining their career good half platoon numbers on a 70-30 playing time split leads to a hitter that hits .297/.348/.439/.787 with something closely resembling average defense in LF. Their weak platoons yield a .270/.331/.377/.709 line, and since Diaz is the RH hitter (and thus plays more than 50% of the time in this theoretical reverse-platoon scenario), you’re looking at, at best, -2 or so defense at a corner. And that’s all Heyward has to do to be an upgrade on the roster–be better than the outfielder you get when you combine 70% of Matt Diaz vs. RHP and 30% of Melky Cabrera vs. LHP. That’s basically replacement level production, and that’s if Diaz’s .350 BABIP vs. RHP is sustainable.
Bringing Heyward up immediately has tangible disadvantages apart from the risk he doesn’t hit .270/.331/.377/.709 with at least -2 defense for two months. As always, service time politics play a role, here. Spending two weeks without Heyward on the roster nets the Braves an additional year of service and keeping him down six more weeks essentially makes that additional year of service free. The Braves say they won’t consider that when making their decision, but don’t buy that, they aren’t so incompetent they’ll completely ignore future finances when making such an important decision. So that’s the most important part of the downside to bringing Heyward up to begin the year.
The other part is his development ain’t done, he hit only 17 homers last season and he’s amassed a grand total of 208 PA’s above class A advanced. Of course, he did hit .323/.408/.555 with 51 walks and 51 strikeouts, 25 doubles, 4 triples, and 10 SB’s (1 CS) last season in 422 PA’s. Still, no matter how well a player does, 195 PA’s at AA and 13 PA’s at AAA generally isn’t enough professional experience to complete a players’ development, especially at twenty years old. There are some people in the, “if you bring a player up before he’s ready he’ll never recover” camp. I’m not so sure I am, though it does seem like a bad thing to call a player to the bigs before he’s ready.
However, he’s the number one prospect in all of baseball for a reason and some people (probably including people in the organization) believe he’s ready, despite his relative lack of professional experience. Regardless of what the numbers tell me, he’s the type of player whose scouting reports are constantly ahead of the numbers unless he’s doing his best Barry Bonds impression. So maybe the Braves’ scouts think he’s ready come late March. In that case, I’m forced to trust the Braves’ scouts, because they’re the best in the business at knowing their own.
Anyway, no way to quantify that, so I won’t. We’ll only consider the arbitration politics when making this assessment–the quasi quantifiable part of the picture.
I figure now’s as good a time as any to break out the Time Adjusted Trade Value Calculator (by the way, big problem with the arbitration percentages. Don’t use the arb%, just estimate salaries for now. I’ll correct and re-upload soon.) I’ve got three images, one of Heyward’s trade value if he begins the year with Atlanta, one if he spends two weeks in the minors, and one if he spends two months in the minors. I’m assuming he’s a 3-win player in 2010 if up for the entire year, a 4-win player in 2011, and a 5-win player for the remainder of his contract.
So, keeping the youngster down for two weeks nets the Braves $4 million in surplus value, and keeping him down for six more weeks nets them an additional $6.2 million.
It seems completely obvious to me that keeping him down for two weeks is the correct financial decision. The probability of Heyward being even a +1 win player in a two week span is so minuscule I don’t think you even blink about keeping him in the minors for two weeks. After all, over two weeks a player gets ~50 PA’s. Assuming he adds a full run on defense during those two weeks (good for a +12 pace, an extremely ambitious goal), the break even point for 1 win is a wOBA of about .530, which equates to about a .550 on base average and .750 slugging percentage (1.300 OPS). There’s a non-zero probability that Jason Heyward hits like that for two weeks, anything can happen over 50 PA’s, but not too much greater than zero, and it’s foolish to run a franchise based on those odds. That doesn’t even account for the fact that we already gave Heyward credit for 0.2 wins in the two week period. And he needs to be even more valuable than that, seeing as the Braves don’t pay $4 million per win (unless they’re paying Derek Lowe).
Like I said, keeping Heyward down for six more weeks nets the Braves an additional $6.2 million in surplus value. Considering the position on the Braves’ win curve, Heyward needs to be a ~2.4 win player (0.8 replacement plus 1.6 (6.2/3.88)) over the six week period in order for calling him up two weeks into the season to be a solid financial move. In that case, assuming the same stellar defense as the last scenario, he’ll need to post a .470 wOBA (about a .460 on base average and .675 slugging percentage or a 1.135 OPS) to be worth 2.4 wins. I am willing to bet that Jason Heyward will have at least one six-week stretch of his career in which he posts a .460 on base average and a .675 slugging percentage, but picking out that six week period in time is something I’m not willing to do. And I’m especially unwilling to predict that the first six weeks of his MLB career as a twenty year old will be that stretch.
Basically, it’s going to be impossible for the decision to bring Heyward up before early June to be a financially sound one on paper, but that’s far from the end of the story. If you look at this thing closely enough, it’s impossible to really know what the correct decision is. The real answer gets lost in a cloud of untested variables. For instance, is bringing Heyward up a good baseball decision (good for him, good for others, in some way we can’t quantify)? Is bringing Heyward up on opening day the difference between making the post season tournament? Will the Braves and Heyward agree to a long-term extension at some point before the 2015 season, changing the overall structure and the 2010 implications? How will Heyward’s call up effect ticket and merchandise sales? All of these questions, along with many others, we have little idea of knowing the answer to. The Braves probably have a better idea than we do, as always.
All things considered, I honestly can’t give a definitive answer. After taking everything in, digesting it, and spitting it back out, I’m only a little bit closer to an answer than I was at the beginning of this thought exercise. If I had scouting experience and had seen him play multiple times in, say, AA or the AFL this past year, maybe I’d be better equipped to answer this question, but I’d probably have to see him this upcoming Spring to really make my decision. This won’t be the first question I attempted to answer and came back with, “I have no idea”, but I have no idea when the Braves should call Heyward up. I’m willing to say that keeping him down for at least two weeks is probably the right decision, but I ultimately trust the Braves to make the correct decision. This is pretty much what they do better than anything–develop players.
As a fan, I want to see Heyward starting in RF on opening day, hitting two 5-run homers and throwing out Alfonso Soriano trying to stretch a single into a double.