The Cubs Have So Many Impactful Players Heading Into a Walk Year - Does It Matter?

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The Cubs Have So Many Impactful Players Heading Into a Walk Year – Does It Matter?

Chicago Cubs

In a pre-Spring Training piece at The Athletic, Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney get into a range of topics facing the Cubs here at the outset of the 2021 season. Good, thorough read.

A section that stood out to me – it’s something Michael got into recently, based on comments by Jed Hoyer – was the bit about having guys over-perform in walk years. Specifically, The Athletic mentions Hoyer’s assertion that it can be a positive to have guys in their final year before free agency as a boost to performance. Setting aside the fact that it’s always felt like a back-handed diss on guys who have signed extensions or free agent contracts, The Athletic generally describes some truth in the matter: “There’s more than just the anecdotal evidence Hoyer cites here that confirms this theory. The contract-year phenomenon is something that’s been backed up by studies, with at least one suggesting that a bump of 4 to 6 percent in OPS is expected in a walk year.”

Obviously that bump would be substantial in a sport where the margins of offensive performance can be so slim, but it also would be not at all uniform across players. Some guys might push a little extra hard in the offseason, and thus might see a little extra performance boost during the course of the season. Some other guys might just be themselves like always, but because of the age they are in their walk year, they see a little better performance along the natural aging curve. And some other guys might see no impact whatsoever, while others might be impacted negatively by the seeming pressure to perform.

That is all to say, I have mixed feelings on the concept, though it stood out to me to see the studies referenced with hard numbers attached. My quick poking around the webz landed on a PECOTA-based study that suggested a slight bump in performance for upwards of 60% of players in their walk year was possible, and a college data analysis that suggests performance slightly declines after signing a free agent contract (which is not quite the same thing), the latter of which referenced multiple other studies with mixed results. The majority of those referenced studies – including the 4-6% one apparently mentioned by The Athletic – suggested a slight overall bump in a player’s walk year. So, while it wouldn’t be uniform across players, in the aggregate, maybe there’s a little something there. Aging and human nature? Something like that? I guess it’s not crazy or inappropriate to say that players would like to earn as much money as possible while they are playing baseball, so it’s not crazy that they could, at the margins, impact that performance in a slight way when there could be more money on the line.

(Flip side, devil’s advocate: aren’t you still strongly financially incentivized to perform in every single year except maybe the seasons that come after you sign a contract you know is your final contract? I just kinda don’t love this topic, because it’s too easy to stick some holes in the seeming logic … but it comes up so often and is so prevalent on this year’s Cubs that I had to discuss.)

Against that whole backdrop, I couldn’t help but think about the sheer volume of important players the Cubs have this year who could be heading into free agency after 2021. If the performance bump concept actually plays out for a majority of the Cubs’ walking group, hey, maybe the team is indeed in for a pleasant surprise.

Here are all the Cubs who are heading into their walk year:

Kris Bryant
Anthony Rizzo
Javy Báez
Craig Kimbrel
Zach Davies
Joc Pederson
Jake Arrieta
Andrew Chafin
Austin Romine
Dan Winkler

You could theoretically include guys like Trevor Williams and Jake Marisnick, who were signed to one-year deals as free agents, but who can be controlled via arbitration for another year. (Note: mutual options can be disregarded, since the incentive to hit free agency on a big platform season would be the same. I also disregarded Kimbrel’s $16 million club option for these purposes, since, again, under this way of thinking, he’d still be incentivized to have a big year and get that sizable option payout.)

That’s a whole lot of your most important players staring at their final season before free agency. Maybe it’ll matter in the aggregate. Maybe it won’t. But it’s definitely, by far, the most impactful group of walk-year players the Cubs have had in my recent memory.

None of that is to say you build a team, strategically, around the concept of a walk-year bump. For one thing, you want a little more longevity than that for your organization. For another thing, it’s not as if the Cubs haven’t wanted to extend many of their players, tacitly acknowledging that the walk-year bump thing is more like a tiny silver lining to a net negative situation, rather than a strategy you affirmatively deploy.

So that’s where I land. This whole thing probably matters a little bit, but I’m not sure it is a net good thing. And if the Cubs were to extend Javy Báez tomorrow, it’s not as if I would suddenly be writing about how much worse he’s now going to be in 2021.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.