Great Moments in Straw Man Arguments: Jon Heyman

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SI’s Jon Heyman was the first major national writer to weigh in on the Ryan Howard contract the other day, tweeting his strong approval of the pact. Today he has a lengthy column up elaborating on his support for the deal.

There are some passable, though ultimately unconvincing (in my view) arguments in the piece, but there was also one ridiculous passage, the sort of which causes so many people to want to lay into Heyman they way we so often do:

Everyone agrees that home runs are an important stat, but to those who
believe RBIs are only a reflection of one’s teammates, and thus pure
luck, here are the top five RBI leaders since 1900: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial. Five very
lucky fellows.

Heyman knows full well that no one argues that RBI are “only” a reflection on one’s teammates or that they’re “pure luck.”  The argument is that RBI are dependent upon one’s teammates and a function of opportunity, thus they do not isolate a player’s individual value, thereby allowing you to do things that are dependent upon knowing one’s individual value like, say, figuring out what you should pay a guy or voting for him as the MVP.

Put differently: you still have to be able to hit the ball to get the RBIs, but even if you rake with the best of them, you’re not going to get a ton of RBIs if your teammates don’t get on base. Ask Mickey Mantle, who drove in 100 runs only four times and stands at a mere 50th on the all-time RBI list, right behind Carlos Delgado at 49.

Surely Heyman doesn’t believe that Delgado was better than Mantle, does he? Of course he doesn’t, because he’s not a dumb guy. He’s just a guy who can’t resist taking a shot at modern statistical analysis whenever the opportunity arises, and that’s what he’s doing here.

Six of seven players decline $17.9 million qualifying offers

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Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu was the only one of seven eligible players to accept his $17.9 million qualifying offer. Bryce Harper, A.J. Pollock, Craig Kimbrel, Patrick Corbin, Yasmani Grandal, and Dallas Keuchel each rejected his, officially making them free agents. Teams that had their QO’s rejected will recoup a draft pick once the player signs elsewhere.

That Harper rejected his QO comes as no surprise, as he is expected to strike perhaps the largest free agent contract in baseball history. Though the free agent market has been less lucrative lately than in previous years, the combination of Harper’s elite talent and his age — he’s only 26 years old — makes him a primary target for more than a handful of teams. Harper reportedly turned down a 10-year, $300 million contract extension offer from the Nationals, so that would seem to be a baseline.

It is also not surprising that Kimbrel, 30, turned down his QO from the Red Sox. Despite a so-so showing during a championship run, Kimbrel is still young and talented enough to land another lucrative contract on the free agent market.

Keuchel bet on himself in turning down the Astros’ QO. He’s been solid since winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2015, owning a 3.77 ERA across 83 starts over the last three seasons. However, he turns 31 years old at the beginning of 2019, and his already mediocre strikeout rate declined even further this past season, so there may be some skepticism about his ability to perform over the course of a multi-year deal. Keuchel will still get one eventually, but his market may be slower to develop.

Pollock, soon 31 as well, will be the outfielder most coveted once Harper is off the market. When he’s healthy, he’s a dynamic five-tool player. However, Pollock hasn’t played in more than 113 games in a season since 2015, so that may be a red flag. Pollock ended 2018 batting .257/.316/.484 with 21 home runs, 65 RBI, 61 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases in 460 plate appearances while playing above-average defense according to various defensive metrics.

Grandal, 30, could’ve gone either way with his QO, but ultimately chose to decline. He had a disappointing postseason, both offensively and defensively. Given how humans are prone to recency bias, it stood to reason that his October performance could have hurt his market. The catching position, however, is rather weak and Grandal stands out in a market that is otherwise focused on Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. Grandal did swat 24 home runs with an .815 OPS in 140 games for the Dodgers this past season.

Corbin, 29, was the most obvious QO decline after Harper. The lefty is coming off of a career year, finishing with a 3.15 ERA and a 246/48 K/BB ratio in exactly 200 innings. Corbin is the best free agent pitcher on the market this offseason. The Yankees have been seriously linked with Corbin even before the season ended.

Ryu likely chose to accept his QO because of his age and injury history. It would have been a gamble to pursue a multi-year deal. He did, however, make 15 starts during the regular season to the tune of a 1.97 ERA with 89 strikeouts and 15 walks in 82 1/3 innings. Those are great numbers. And most clubs would have been smart enough to look beyond his 5.21 ERA in the postseason, which has more to do with a leaky bullpen than his own personal failings. Still, it’s hard to fault Ryu for playing it safe and taking the guaranteed $17.9 million for one year.