Sometimes in Sports a Team’s Best Player Isn’t Who You Think It Is

By Andrew O’Neill
The Tribe Sports

You may have heard this past week that the Boston Red Sox released third baseman Pablo Sandoval.  The move cost the team $49 million just to execute, and an analysis of Sandoval’s tangible production (in other words hindsight) suggests that the 2015 signing by the Red Sox was one of the worst of all-time.

Sandoval signed a 5-year, $95 million deal after a splendid 2014 postseason with the Giants that ended in another World Series win.

He proceeded to play in 161 games with the Red Sox–over 2 1/2 seasons.  And, as if production even matters given such an absence, Sandoval hit just .237.

Though they argue from decidedly different ends of the optimism/cynicism scale whenever players are given huge contracts, fans and GMs both know that sometimes you sign a guy and he just doesn’t produce.  It can happen for a multitude of reasons, all of which collectively just make potential failure simply a matter of not being able to predict the future.

But is production all there is?  Surely there are other ways for a player to be valuable, no?

With rosters changing dramatically season-to-season, and with every major sports league/association searching to maintain parity, with the exception of the NBA it is harder than ever to dominate a season just by being more talented.

Variables like physical health, team chemistry, and consistent opportunism can be what carries a team or tears them down.

A player may join a team and not contribute how they were expected to in terms of production.  Fans will be frustrated by what they see, lamenting the move’s permanence and calling for heads to roll.

Sometimes, though, a player’s mere presence on the team is influential everywhere we can’t see it.

Remember Jason Heyward’s 2016?

On paper two things will show re: Jason Heyward’s 2016 season.  The first thing will be that before the season Heyward signed an 8-year, $164 million deal to play for the Chicago Cubs, and the second thing will be that in the 2016 season Heyward started 133 games, had a .306 OBP with just 7 HR and 49 RBI.  Considering his salary, statistical analysis would pin Jason Heyward as one of the least valuable players in MLB in 2016.

On the field, that is.

One thing that statistical analysis cannot account for is time spent off the field, which in a baseball season is a lot of time, the most valuable of which is spent in conversation—in the clubhouse(s), airplanes, in the dugout during games, etc.

Of course we now know that despite Heyward’s abysmal season, the Cubs won the World Series, doing so in an all-time great Game 7 victory in Cleveland in which they surrendered a 3-run lead in the 8th inning only to eventually pull the game out in the 10th, following a short rain delay.

Fox’s first two on-field interviews after the game were with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.  Each brought up Heyward when asked about the rain delay,  telling Tom Verducci and Ken Rosenthal that Heyward had gathered the team in the weight room and facilitated a pep-talk.  Bryant and Rizzo both articulated how in that moment the team was maybe shook, or backed against the ropes, Heyward’s words gave them their focus back.

Another thing statistical analysis cannot ever account for or explain is baseball lore, which now for all-time will include the 17 minutes when rain fell on the field in Cleveland and Jason Heyward earned exactly all of his 2016 salary in the visitor’s weight room.

Just barely off the field.

So who could be this season’s Jason Heyward?

While certainly none can match the discrepancy between contract and production that Heyward displayed, there are a few players whose value to their club may prove to go far beyond what the numbers say.

Players like Matt Holliday for the Yankees, Daniel Descalso for the Diamondbacks, and Chase Utley for the Dodgers all leave something to be desired on the stat sheet (Holliday has been productive but missed time with a viral infection) but provide a veteran presence that may be proving to have influenced their team/teammates positively in the form of professionalism, i.e. fitness, diet and routines off-the-field, as well as situational awareness on-the-field.

Jason Kipnis, an all-star second baseman for the Indians in previous years, has been a forgotten man this year due to injury and lack of production, however the Indians are in the hunt, and if Kipnis – the Indians’ captain – has to do most of his work in the dugout and in crucial pinch-hitting roles, then he has ‘unsung hero’ written all over him.

And then there’s a handful more Cubs who could carry Heyward’s torch as the season deepens.  Heyward himself is having a wonderful season while others have struggled.  Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, and Jon Lester have all under-performed through four months.  If this continues, then each of the three may be capable of helping their team some other way.

Is it possible for a player to have a bad season and still represent money well spent? Yes, and this is how.