I’ve never understood the tendency to blame a team’s inadequacies on its best players. Maybe it’s a matter of contrast: The closer a player gets to elite status, the more obvious his few flaws become. Or maybe it’s certain fans’ desire to look smarter than everyone else: “No, you see, the team’s best player isn’t actually doing the most to help the club win. It’s not that easy.”
The thing is, it often is that easy.
Last summer, I became aware of a curious phenomenon: Apparently there are Minnesota Twins fans who either genuinely don’t like Joe Mauer or who view him as some kind of a disappointment. I’m serious. We’re talking about the local boy who turned down playing football at Florida State to play baseball for Minnesota, then stayed with the Twins when they were in their neo–Washington Senators phase instead of chasing money and a World Series on the coasts; the guy who won three batting titles, and the 2009 MVP, and led the Twins in WAR in four of the six seasons after Johan Santana got traded.
Twins’ fans misdirected frustration stems from two places: a flawed understanding of the economics of baseball and a flawed understanding of positional value.
The fastest way to become a pariah in sports is to be the highest-paid player on a team and then fail to be perfect. Mauer’s in the middle of an eight-year, $184 million contract that can’t sit well with fans who have a strong institutional memory of Carl Pohlad, who was among MLB’s worst owners in the interwar period between Marge Schott and Jeffrey Loria. Pohlad was the opposite of Thomas Heywood, the compassionate, grandfatherly, and sadly fictional Twins owner played by Jason Robards in Little Big League. Pohlad elevated to an art form the standard sports owner line of crying poor, pocketing millions by raising ticket prices, and enjoying sweetheart stadium deals at the taxpayers’ expense, then failing to invest further in the on-field product. When the Twins struggled to remain relevant, he blamed the very economics that made him embarrassingly wealthy.
The end result is that Twins fans are resigned to supporting a team that (1) makes Ricky Nolasco its all-time most expensive free-agent signing, and (2) still winds up in the bottom third of the payroll rankings. Mauer’s contract represented an investment by ownership, and when the Twins lost 99, 96, and 96 games the past three seasons, the target of the franchise’s investment became the target of the fans’ frustration.
It doesn’t help that Mauer, despite being on a clear Hall of Fame track, is still somehow underrated. He’s taken heat for not playing every day, even though no catcher does thanks to the position’s high physical demands. Among the other things no catcher does: get on base. Since 1993, nine catchers have batted 3,000 times and posted an OBP of .350 or more. Considering how much of that 21-season span encompasses the offensive boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, .350 is a pretty modest bar to clear. Mauer’s career OBP is .405, which beats Mike Piazza by 28 points. By wRC+, Mauer would’ve been the seventh-best offensive first baseman in baseball last year, and he did that at catcher, a position where Russell Martin can hit .226 and still be a four-win player.
That offensive bar will get higher with Mauer moving to first base this season, but despite how few home runs he hits, he still gets on base as well as anyone in the game. Factor in doubles — which is tough to do, because then J.P. Arencibia becomes an elite power-hitting catcher — and Mauer hits for respectable power.
Criticizing Mauer for his playing time and his lack of power is like criticizing Minneapolis because its beaches suck — it misses the point so completely that anyone doing that is probably also missing the fact that Mauer is still the best player on the Twins. When they lose 90 games again this year, it won’t be because he failed to hit enough home runs.
Speaking of not hitting enough home runs: It’s equally shocking that Joey Votto gets as little respect as he does in Cincinnati. Votto has an offensive résumé that dwarfs even Mauer’s, but like Mauer, Votto is derided for failing to generate enough power even though he was second on the team in home runs, second in isolated power, and first in slugging percentage last season. He’s also knocked for being too passive at the plate, though he’s around league-average at swinging at pitches in the zone; he’s earned that reputation for passivity thanks to swinging at pitches outside the zone less frequently than anyone else in baseball. Well, Ted Williams took crap for that, too. (Plus, it’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure my Little League coach told me not to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. If he lied to me and I had that backward all along, it might explain why I was such a terrible baseball player.)
My favorite rag on Votto, though, is that he doesn’t drive in enough runs. This is 2014, and some people who influence public opinion on baseball still believe RBIs are the product of some ineffable quality of being a “run producer” and not merely of having guys on base to drive in. Votto certainly scored enough runs last year: 101, the eighth most in baseball. Runs are also born from getting on base, which Votto did last year better than anyone except Miguel Cabrera. The trouble with using Potter Stewart’s standard for identifying pornography — I know it when I see it — as a means of identifying “run producers” is that not everything in the world is pornography, or even like pornography. And while that may be a source of disappointment, it’s also an opportunity to quantify such things and to aggregate knowledge. And whaddya know, FanGraphs has done just that to come up with a stat that’s actually called “weighted runs created.” Now, I know math is threatening; I can’t do the math behind wRC+, but I also can’t do the math necessary to create an internal combustion engine, and my car still starts in the morning.
The point is, the numbers worth looking at say Votto was something like the fifth-best run producer in the league last year.
Votto and Mauer are the victims of casual fans still overvaluing home runs and undervaluing OBP, particularly since first basemen are supposed to hit big fly balls instead of line drives. And yet in Atlanta, Freddie Freeman, a doubles and walks machine who also plays first, is being compared not only to Votto, but to Chipper Jones.
The Votto comparison is interesting, because as Dave Cameron explains, both players benefit from an ability to hit to the opposite field, which, among other things, makes them immune to the shift. The Jones comparison, authored by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Dave O’Brien, seems to be based on RBIs and being a goofy-looking corner infielder for the Braves. It hilariously hand-waves Chipper’s superior underlying numbers, crediting him with having “a much stronger supporting cast.” That’s not as false as saying Freeman’s on Chipper’s level as a hitter, but it’s also not a claim we ought to take on face value.
Freeman’s a good player, but he was a two-win player in 2012. In 2013, his batted-ball profile, walk rate, and strikeout rate stayed more or less the same, but his BABIP went up 80 points and he became a five-win player. Maybe he only learned to go the other way last year, but Occam’s razor says at least a large part of that is luck. Even if Freeman does regress, a 24-year-old first baseman who posts OBPs in the mid-to-high .300s while also bringing some power is a really nice player, perhaps even one worthy of the eight-year contract extension he got a couple weeks ago. But that doesn’t automatically make him Atlanta’s best player. If Freeman is overrated and earns money and accolades beyond his on-field accomplishments, that’s fine. Good for him. He’s a good ballplayer and seems like a decent dude, and his reputation is really only hurting one other person.
That person is Jason Heyward, who actually is the best player on the Braves.
While Freeman’s skills are more like Votto’s and Mauer’s, Heyward contends with more similar PR problems. In 2010, Heyward posted an age-20 season that we’d all probably still be in awe of if Mike Trout hadn’t come along two years later and wrecked the curve for everyone. In 2011, Heyward battled a shoulder injury and some bad batted-ball luck of his own, following up a five-win season with a two-win season. In 2012, while healthy all season, Heyward was a legitimate MVP candidate at age 22. He was one of the best defensive right fielders in the game, with a 121 wRC+ and 21 stolen bases, making him a solid six-win player.
Last year, Heyward was still worth three wins despite missing a third of the season after being hit in the face with a pitch. But his offensive numbers weren’t up to par with Freeman’s, and in the first season in almost two decades without Chipper, Atlanta’s fans and local media naturally gravitated toward the guy with the .319 batting average to fill the void. They lost faith in the less visible Heyward, whom Jones had once accused of milking an injury. Now Freeman’s got the big contract, while Heyward looks like he’ll be on his way out once free agency hits.
This whole Heyward-over-Freeman argument is moot, of course, if Heyward can’t stay on the field, because showing up 150 times a year, as Freeman does, isn’t nothing. And at the moment, Freeman has a non-trivial advantage over Heyward with the bat, even if we somewhat discount Freeman’s 2013 performance. So let’s say Heyward is healthy in 2014. Since the shoulder injury that scratched his 2011 season didn’t bother him in 2012, and I wouldn’t count on him taking another pitch off the face in 2014, it’s safe to say we’re not dealing with Franklin Gutierrez here.
What we’re left with is a poor man’s version of the Cabrera-Trout MVP argument from 2012, so let’s talk about defense. Freeman has a reputation as a good defensive first baseman, which is hilarious for two reasons: First, “good defensive first baseman” is a misleading and patronizing term, because the best defensive first basemen in the game are all playing third base or the outfield. And even setting that aside, the numbers paint an almost Jeterian story of Freeman’s defense. We have three full seasons of data on Freeman for Total Zone (Baseball-Reference), UZR (FanGraphs), and FRAA (Baseball Prospectus), giving us a total of nine evaluations using advanced defensive metrics. FRAA rated Freeman two runs above average in 2013. The other eight evaluations all come back in the red, three times by a full win. Enter whatever caveats you like about advanced fielding data being prone to fluctuations, but even directionally, Freeman doesn’t come off as “good.” Heyward, meanwhile, is kind of like Jayson Werth or Bryce Harper defensively. He’s big, fast, and smart, and he has a good arm. He could play center field in a pinch, though he’s too big to play there every day. He’s been at least an average defender every year by all three metrics, and as he’s matured, he’s gotten even better. In 2012, his last full healthy season, he was 15 runs above average according to FRAA, UZR, and Total Zone.
If peak Freeman produces 10 runs or so more than peak Heyward on offense, Heyward wins them back and them some with his glove.
Then there’s the positional adjustment, which isn’t as extreme as it would be if Heyward were a shortstop, but is still another half-win or so in Heyward’s favor. And then there’s baserunning, where Heyward picks up another half-win even though Freeman isn’t as bad on the bases as his foot speed might suggest.
The complete picture is this: Freeman has one obvious advantage over Heyward that might not be as big of an advantage as we’d think, while Heyward is the superior all-around player because he does so many little things so well. If Andrelton Simmons’s defense is actually worth five wins a year, and if Justin Upton ever returns to his 2011 form, then even Heyward might not be the best player on the Braves, such is Atlanta’s wealth of young talent. But between Heyward and Freeman, it’s the classic battle of context and nuance against the facile. Taking nothing away from Freeman, who’s certainly better than the alternatives to Votto and Mauer, Braves fans will one day wish their team hadn’t locked up the wrong player.