If u have great players, you're going 2 win games. If u have bad players, you're going 2 lose games. What does analytics have 2 do with it?
— Dwain Price (@DwainPrice) February 23, 2016
Oh, if only it was that easy. On the surface, this take as accurate as it is face-meltingly hot. It’s true that great players help you win and bad players render you less likely to be successful. But since Price, Dallas Mavericks beat writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and host of the appropriately named Agree to Disagree radio show, nuked this statement in the microwave, the center is cold enough to be mistaken for a militant-rapper-turned-family-friendly-actor. Last I checked, there were a whole lot of guys on the spectrum between great and bad and it’s those guys to whom we can best apply metrics in order to determine where and how they best fit.
Even though Jason Heyward falls closer to the high end of the scale, he remains a great example of how advanced metrics better illustrate a player’s value than the traditional measures of home runs, RBI, and batting average alone. Would a staid member of the lawn-shooing statistical orthodoxy have green-lit a monster deal for a guy who averages .268 with 16 bombs and 59 RBI? Doubt it. Other than his tremendous defense, there may not be any one thing Heyward does exceptionally well. He is, however, proficient in pretty much every facet of the game. That’s what led me to write about him being somewhat of a glue guy for the Cubs, though not in the same way that term is generally used. He fills in performance gaps for a team that, despite winning 97 games and making a trip to the NLCS, had its share of them.
But now that I’ve given Price’s take a while to temper, I’m not feeling quite as put off by it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still prettay, prettay bad, it’s just that I’m kind of looking around and approaching it from a different angle. You see, there’s more to being a great player than putting up big numbers. At the same time, I think things like chemistry and clutch performance — often cited as characteristics of elite teams/athletes — are overvalued to an extent. I’m a guy who believes in the existence and importance of both, but only as ancillary factors. Where am I going with this? Well, just like magic is science that we simply can’t explain, some intangibles may just be skills that we don’t yet know how to measure.
Some people have an innate affinity for numbers and others are able to write with ease and without classical training. In order to get better, though, they need to be able to work and to grow and to see patterns, along with recognizing and correcting their own weaknesses. I use a thesaurus all the time because I don’t want and can’t afford to simply lean on the vocabulary available to me via immediate retrieval (I’m not Jeff Passan, you know). Of course, I still need to be able to use those words appropriately. In much the same way, a baseball player needs to have an understanding of what pitch he’s likely to see in a given situation, but he’s also got to have the ability to accurately discern that pitch to ensure his instinct is correct. You think a guy with good recall and pitch recognition is going to perform better in the clutch? Or that a player who’s better able to interpret and react to social cues is going to be a more solid presence in the locker room?
In Heyward, the Cubs have a player who not only excels at his craft, but who understands how to study its intricacies in an effort to improve. What’s more, he can articulate those thoughts.
“A lot of things we talk about, not a lot of guys in this clubhouse or in the game talk about,” Anthony Rizzo said of his new teammate. “He’s very advanced with everything. He sees everything, he watches everything, he pays attention to everything, which in my opinion is not easy to do.
“[Heyward] sees everything,” the Cubs’ All-Star first baseman continued. “He’s five steps ahead of the game. We were talking, and I’m like, ‘Wow, you think like that, too?’ He anticipates moves off the bench, why would you throw this guy that pitch in this situation. It’s little things that an outsider would never think about.”
Joe Maddon has been complimentary of the way his center fielder plays the game, and that’s without even having had the chance to work much with him directly yet.
“He can beat you in a five-tool way on a nightly basis, whether it’s running, whether it’s throwing, whether it’s defense, whether it’s hitting, or hitting with power, and the sixth tool, just the way he thinks,” the Cubs skipper explained. “He’s the complete baseball player.”
So how did Heyward become a veritable Swiss Army Knife on the field? It started all the way back in Little League, when he was first taught the fundamentals of the game.
“You need to understand the game in the sense of where your shortstop needs to be, where the second baseman needs to be, where the catcher is looking to be,” Heyward said. “Before the pitch is made, where are you going to go with the ball if this happens, if that happens.
“Those are things I was fortunate to be taught at 7, 8 years old. That’s helped me grow into myself and some of the ability I have. I could just be myself and was thinking about the game and trying to be a few steps ahead.”
The best players in any sport are those who can make their teammates better. Heyward’s ability and his performance will be important to the team, but the fact that he is playing the game a few steps ahead and is willing to discuss his approach will elevate those around him. So many individuals possessed of intrinsic ability are unable to share their knowledge, but in Heyward the Cubs have a unique combination of phenom and teacher. And it’s that sixth sense, the multi-dimensional understanding of the game and the physical tools to put that knowledge into action, that may really impact this squad.
And it’s not just Heyward, either. Anthony Rizzo plays the game in a very similar fashion, and we’re seeing much of the same from guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited about having the opportunity to see how this manifests as these guys play off of one another both physically and mentally over the course of this season and beyond.