I’d like to show you the numbers for two 28-year-old National League third basemen over the past two seasons, using FanGraphs’ custom leaderboard tool:
Before you try to figure out who these two guys are, just let yourself look at the numbers and decide who has been the better player over this stretch. To me, it looks like Player A has been able to log quite a few more plate appearances, which is valuable. He puts the ball in play at a fantastic rate, walks decently well, and plays above-average defense. Player B – at least for these past two years – has the much better walk rate, much more pop, is the better baserunner and better defender. I notice that Player B has the better wOBA, but Player A has a much better wRC+. So, Player A must play in a tougher ballpark. Is Player B having some bad luck with that low BABIP? Might he be even better than he appears here? That walk rate and that ISO are pretty tantalizing for a guy who’s been above-average defensively.
Who’s better? My gut says that Player B has been the slightly better player, overall, over the past two years, though you can’t completely ignore that Player A has had some 30% more plate appearances, and plays in a tougher offensive park. In any case, the two were clearly very, very close over the past two years.
Ready for the surprise?
Player A is about to get a $100ish million contract in free agency. It’s Pablo Sandoval.
Player B? Yeah, that’s Luis Valbuena. (You can see the leaderboard here.)
I have to tell you, when BN’er JulioZuleta pointed out the similarities between the production of the two players recently – big hat tip to him for the idea behind this post – I was pretty shocked. Even as I review the numbers, think on the players, and discuss it now … I’m pretty shocked.
To be sure, I knew that Luis Valbuena had been much better these past two years than folks were giving him credit for, and I also knew that Kung Fu Panda, for all his postseason heroics, had been on something of a decline. But if you’d told me, before looking at the numbers, that the two would be virtually indistinguishable in terms of total value over the past two years? I wouldn’t have believed it.
So what does this actually mean? Is Luis Valbuena a $20 million player? If not, why not? Why is Sandoval about to get so much money?
Well, for one thing, Sandoval has a much longer track record of this level of success. If you stretch back any further than just two years, Sandoval starts to blow Valbuena away. Then again, I’d point out that Valbuena didn’t really have a chance to be a regular starter until these past two years. It’s hard to punish him for that. But I suppose it does afford you much more confidence in Sandoval sustaining this level of performance going forward.
There are also those postseason numbers. Sure, Sandoval has had opportunity where Valbuena has not, and sure, it’s not a huge sample, but Sandoval has hit .344/.389/.545 in 167 plate appearances. That’s not meaningless.
The exercise here is not designed to convince you that Luis Valbuena is better than, or even as good as, Pablo Sandoval. Instead, it’s mostly just a reminder of how good Valbuena has been these past two years (and maybe raises a question on Panda’s value beyond his postseason heroics and great nickname), particularly when you consider that (1) the Cubs got him via the waiver wire for nothing, and (2) he’s earned just $2.6 million total the past two years. That makes me all the more pleased to know that the Cubs have him for two more arbitration years.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with Valbuena next year, with top prospect Kris Bryant on the way, and his highest and best value probably at third base. Maybe Valbuena is traded. Maybe he’s relegated to a utility role. Whatever happens, I hope the Cubs are able to maximize Valbuena’s value. Because the guy has been damn good the past two years.