Have MLB teams begun to fundamentally evolve in the way they evaluate and value outfielders?
That's a question I've been pondering recently in the wake of some recent transactions, most notably Nelson Cruz's one-year, $8 million free agent contract, and Brett Gardner's four-year, $52 million extension.
Fairly or unfairly, the New York Mets have taken some heat for not signing Cruz to a similarly-valued contract, especially in the context of signing outfielder Chris Young to a one-year, $7.25 million deal in November.
Many will point out that the contexts of each deal were different, and that's true. The qualifying offer compensation hanging over Cruz is an important part of the equation as well. I'll let others write about all that.
However, as I look back on the outfielder contracts signed this winter, I can't help but notice some trends:
That list doesn't include Gardner's extension, nor does it include Michael Bourn, who signed a four-year, $48 million free agent contract last offseason, recent enough to be part of my hypothesis about outfield value.
To evaluate these 16 players, I've created a Fangraphs report of their production over the last three seasons.
As many of you remember, I talked last week about power, and how it's never going out of style in baseball.
Sorting that list by ISO, you'll see that Curtis Granderson leads the pack with a .260 ISO over that span from 2011-2013. That was a big reason he got a four-year, $60 million deal with the Mets, but it's not the only reason.
While Granderson's defensive value from 2011-2013 is in the negatives, the Mets are banking on his defense being a plus as he moves to a corner outfield spot full-time, which seems like a reasonable expectation.
The truth is, Brett Gardner has always been a superior defender than Granderson, and the Yankees probably should've flip-flopped their defensive alignment years ago to maximize the value of both players.
Gardner has the ability to play plus defense in center field, but he's also shown borderline-elite levels of defense in left field, where he's likely to play alongside Jacoby Ellsbury, who cashed in big time this winter.
Therein lies the rub. Outfield defense, and to a lesser degree, the ability to run the bases well. Key elements of the game that for decades were always undervalued. Are they beginning to be valued more highly now?
Ellsbury doesn't hit for much power. He did in 2011, posting a career-best .230 ISO, but he only had a .160 ISO from 2011-13, seventh among this group of 16 guys that just signed new deals within the past year.
In fact, other than his .230 ISO year in 2011, Ellsbury's never had another full season with an ISO higher than .128, and he's never had more than nine home runs in a season other than his breakout 32-homer 2011.
But Ellsbury plays excellent defense. Tops in defensive value among this group of players. Chris Young, for what it's worth, is second in defensive value among this group, Bourn third, Gardner fourth, David Murphy fifth.
Gardner's never had an ISO higher than the .143 mark he posted last year. A career .114 ISO. An ISO of .125, third-worst among this group. Yet he was rewarded with a new deal with an average annual value of $13 million.
Michael Bourn's .102 ISO is dead last among this group of 16 players from 2011-2013. His career ISO is just .094, in fact. His career high in home runs is nine, and he only has one 30-double season in his career.
But strong defense and baserunning got Bourn a deal with an AAV of $12 million.
Which brings us to Chris Young.
A guy who many Mets fans have already decided is a complete waste of $7.25 million without even taking one step in the Citi Field outfield. His offense could use some serious improvement, there's no doubt about that.
Even though Young's only hit .225 with a .312 OBP over the last three years, (16th and 14th, respectively, on that list) he's shown solid pop. His .187 ISO over that span is tied with Hunter Pence for fifth on that list.
His defensive value, as mentioned above, is second on that list. He's shown the ability to be a plus defender in center field, even as his offensive production has become mediocre, or slightly below-average.
According to Young, five teams, including the analytics-friendly World Champion Red Sox, had interest in his services this winter. The Mets were aggressive, however, and saw Young as a great fit in their outfield.
"I think we can be one of the best in baseball in the outfield," Young said on Monday, after reporting to Mets camp several days early. "You're talking about guys with a lot of experience out there, a lot of speed, guys with good arms. Hopefully, we can get on the good side of our pitchers. Hopefully, they'll love us out there because we're going to be busting our butts. Anything that goes in the air will come down in our gloves."
Anything that goes in the air will come down in our gloves.
With all due respect to Nelson Cruz, I don't think that statement's true for him. There was a time when he played a solid defensive outfield, but no more. Like Carlos Beltran, Cruz was signed primarily to be a designated hitter.
There's nothing wrong with that, mind you. I just don't think you can blame the Mets for not signing a glorified all-bat, no-glove player when they, and many other teams, are showing that they are valuing outfield defense more highly than ever these days. Nor can you blame the Mets for not being able to foresee his asking price falling from Granderson money (or more) in November to half of what Marlon Byrd got from the Phillies.
Cruz's deal is a great move for the Orioles. Tip your cap to them. But that doesn't mean that the Mets screwed up signing Young instead of Cruz. Whether or not you put much stock into defensive value, recent contract trends are showing that MLB teams everywhere are putting more stock into it now than ever before.
The reality is, MLB teams (especially National League teams that can't afford to pay a DH) are starting to understand that outfield defense is important. How important is a question for someone much smarter than me.
It remains to be seen if Young will outproduce Cruz this year, but it's a little logistically fuzzy to assume that because Cruz hits dingers in a hitter's park, he's automatically a better option. He may very well have a better year than Young at the plate, and since the O's will likely DH him, that will help his overall value as well.
But in Citi Field's vast outfield, the Mets, like many others, are putting a greater emphasis on outfield defense and run prevention now. Young is a big part of that. How baseball teams view outfield value is evolving.