When it comes to player value and putting stock – or not – into this season, you’re going to have too major problems: (1) the season is just 60 games, so many players are getting in only 50 to 55 games of action, and that’s not a significant statistical sample to weed out the noise; and (2) the weirdness and hardness of the 2020 year is going to impact players in totally different ways.
Then, you could say, there’s a third problem that basically amounts to the overlap of the two original problems: how much is the weirdness of 2020 contributing to the results of a particular player in a small sample? We can know that the sample is small and the year is weird, and we can probably do some mental and analytical gymnastics to get around them a bit. But what we can’t know is how the combination of those two things could make a particular player’s results – good or bad – absolutely and entirely meaningless for 2021 and beyond.
Take Javy Báez as the perfect example. His results this year have been abysmal. There are measures by which he has been the single worst hitter in baseball in 2020. Most of that we see in the data, but also much of it we can see with our eyes. He’s not been a competent, consistent at bat this year. He looks lost.
On problem number one (the short season), we can’t know what would have happened if Báez had some more time to adjust. With another 100 games, maybe he finds his footing, or shakes off some minor nagging thing, or gets some more good luck. Whatever hypothetical you want to come up with.
On problem number two, we can’t know to what extent Báez’s efforts at the plate are being impacted by the broken up season, the lack of in-game video, the challenge of playing right now with a young family, and the lack of a crowd at games to provide some juice. Maybe if things were normal, none of this would have happened to a guy who otherwise took big offensive steps forward the last two years and is only 27.
But then you’ve got the space where the two problems intersect, and what you just can’t know is whether Báez’s results, in particular, are getting crushed by the combination of small-sample flukiness, real-world problems in the COVID era, and the pressure that comes with trying to navigate through those two things once your numbers start to tank and you know you can’t recover them.
It’s possible that both of the problems are gone next year. And so it’s possible that Báez is simply great again next year. Boom, poof, just like that. But it’s also possible that there *is* some signal in his performance this year. Maybe his batting eye took a step back this year. Maybe his wrists got a little less quick. Maybe other teams discovered a tunneling approach that is particularly tough for him. On and on.
You can do your absolute best to scout this stuff, and to account for the variables, but there are going to be sizable gaps in knowledge whatever you do (much more than in a usual season – which is already hard enough to use for future projections).
So if you’re the Cubs and you were talking about an extension with Báez, now what do you do? He’s arbitration-eligible for one more year, and even after this terrible short season, he’s going to get a bump next year to something like $12 million. You will of course tender him a contract – even in this environment, it’s worth the defense, the baserunning, and the upside on offense – but how do you calibrate what this year’s performance means for his value on an extension? We’d long talked about Xander Bogaerts’ six-year, $120 million deal as a comp, but that came before finances were crushed, and before you got a really, really terrible data point on Báez. If you’re Báez, you can argue that the data point was hopelessly corrupted by the small sample and the weird, challenging year. But if you’re the Cubs, how can you not believe there is some meaning in the performance?
More or less, everything I just said about Báez can be applied to Kris Bryant and his nightmarish 2020 season, too. The primary difference there, though, and why I focused on Báez as more of a black box, is because we DO know at least PART of the issue with Bryant. He hasn’t been healthy. All kinds of issues this year for him, from the back issue to the elbow issue to the wrist issue to the finger issue to the oblique issue. None that means you entirely excuse the performance – to the contrary, it adds to the concerns you have about his durability as he ages – but I’m saying at least with Bryant, there’s a little more information available about why his season has played out as it has. How much you weight all the other stuff, though? Well, the questions all still apply.
Basically, these are all questions without answers at the moment. This article from Ken Rosenthal got me thinking about these issues and challenges, which will apply not only to internal decisions the Cubs have, but also to free agent and trade valuation:
The baseball mystery of 2020: How should teams evaluate players after this strange, short season? Story: https://t.co/FErDryAndy
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) September 25, 2020
It’s a good read to continue grasping the depths of the challenges that lie ahead. The financial damage to the sport and the inability to truly evaluate players this year … this offseason is going to be like nothing we’ve seen before.
Unmentioned by Rosenthal or me, above? Next year is the final year of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. That was already going to make the offseason an odd bird with the fundamental structure of the game coming to the table.