Change-UpSeptember 01, 2010
The Meaning of Marlon Byrd
By Patrick Sullivan

When Marlon Byrd signed his 3-year, $15 million contract with the Cubs this past off-season, it was seen as yet another indicator that Jim Hendry was out of touch. Why add a 32-year old center fielder with a flimsy track record of success to a team with a $144 million payroll and legitimate championship aspirations?

Here is Christina Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus reacting to the acquisition:

My initial response on Twitter (@ChristinaKahrl) was that Byrd won't slug .420 away from Texas, and while that was a flip comment*, the more I think about it, the more I'm comfortable with the idea. It might cost less than half as much as signing Gary Matthews Jr. did, but that doesn't make the signing less than half as dumb. That's the basis of comparison I'm operating from, because we've heard this story before: toolsy 31-year-old ex-fourth outfielder has big year in a superheated bandbox, gets big money, and becomes a permanent punchline on his general manager's highlight reel. No doubt Jim Hendry's moved beyond the laughter, since he's on the downslope of the Milton Bradley experience.

Byrd's performance record is entirely unmysterious.

Kahrl thought the one silver lining of the move would be that Sam Fuld, a 28-year old who hasn’t managed a .400 SLG in the PCL in 2010, might be able to get some playing time more quickly given Byrd’s ability to shift to the corner outfield positions. Christina was not alone. There was a guy named Sullivan right here at Baseball Analysts who wrote the following:

It's hard not to think back to the Milton Bradley episode and how much it distracted Chicago when looking at their moves this off-season. Losing Bradley and picking up Carlos Silva and Marlon Byrd, wherever you come down on the argument that they just had to part ways with Bradley, amounts to wheel-spinning. Byrd is no better than Bradley, Silva is just awful.


So how has Byrd performed? He’s hitting .302/.358/.446, good for a .356 wOBA and a 119 wRC+. Byrd ranks 3rd among National League center fielders in Runs Above Replacement. When you factor defense, his season looks even more impressive. He sits 12th in Fangraphs WAR among all National League position players. By any measure whatsoever, the Byrd signing has been a masterstroke for the Cubs, albeit a bittersweet masterstroke for Cubs fans as they ponder what might have been if their team’s other pieces were up to par.

A lot of Byrd’s success offensively has been tied to a high in-play average of .338, but then again his career figure is .325. He’s murdered lefties to the tune of a .953 OPS, and in case you think his output is tied to Wrigley, he’s been much better on the road than he has at home. Defensively, as you can deduce from his WAR number, he appears to have been terrific this season. Just five months into a 3-year deal, the complete story of the Byrd acquisition is as yet unwritten. He is hitting just .245/.268/.340 over the last 28 days. Nonetheless he's been good enough to date that it warranted attention.

I wanted to post this for a couple of reasons. The first was simply to point out a ray of light in an otherwise miserable Cubs season. Byrd seems to have exceptional make-up and character – check out his blog here – and has quickly become a fan favorite. When I attended Wrigley in late June to watch the Cubs take on Pittsburgh, I noticed how much the fans seated in the bleachers adored Byrd, cheering wildly as he took the field in the first inning. And Byrd impressed me by how much he seemed to be relishing the opportunity to patrol the Wrigley outfield in front of such appreciative fans. Byrd would be one of the great stories of 2010 if Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez had come to play this year.

Another reason I wanted to post this was to consider what it means when the saberists get it so wrong. A 32-year old whose offensive value had been tied to hitting in Texas, who had not even experienced real Big League success until age 29...well that’s not a guy worth inking to a guaranteed 3-year deal, right? That’s how my thinking went anyway. But there are considerations that teams take into account, granted inaccurately at times, that performance analysts do not.

I don’t know if what follows is true, but I bet a lot of it is, and I also bet this represents much of the case for Byrd that refutes the reasons not to sign him that Christina and I exclusively considered. Here goes:

Byrd is a guy with outstanding character who works hard and has never been in better shape. He will be a remarkable influence on his teammates, and the opportunity to play for a team with a rich tradition like the Cubs will not be lost on him. Whatever drop-off a move away from Arlington entails, consider all of these factors enough to counteract it. He’s a mature player, a true professional who got a late start but is now ready to take his game to a new level into his mid-30’s.

I bet there’s a scout out there, probably working for the Cubs, who had written something precisely to that effect on Byrd. That scout was dead right, and I know as a result of the Byrd case I will be looking into factors I previously had not considered when analyzing player movement.


Patrick, you were already a must-read guy: you're even more so now. The ability to say, "I got that one wrong, so let's see what I can learn from it," makes everything else you say that much more credible.

Great article...I wasn't excited about the signing either as a Cubs fan, but he's been not only a solid regular but also a fantastic professional from what we've seen here in Chicago thus far.

Thanks for the nice words, guys.

I guess I'm one of the few readers here who liked the Byrd signing. He was projected to hit for about a .340ish wOBA and play average-ish defense at a premium position. Given a reasonable playing time estimate, that was 2.1 WAR. Subtracting .5 WAR for 2011 and another .5 WAR for 2012 and adding 7% inflation to the value of the win, that made him worth $21.2 million at the time the contract was signed. 3 years and $15 million for that kind of value at a premium position is a very nice contract these days.

On the other hand, the Cubs as a team were at about 80-83 wins (true talent level) entering the season. So the question really becomes whether or not the Cubs should have signed Byrd knowing they weren't likely to contend in 2010. The answer to that question rests with what they do with him over the next year. If they trade him while he has excellent value, then the Cubs come out of this ahead, but if they keep him for 3 years, it's neither a bad move nor a good one.

The Angels front office said pretty much the exact same thing after the Matthews signing. Though before the HGH revelation. That didn't turn out so well.

I'd pay attention to things like this:
"Byrd is a guy with outstanding character who works hard and has never been in better shape."

if such statements were used selectively and proven to have predictive value. Pretty much any team that signs an early 30's player off a career year believes that, or else why would they offer the contract?

But usually they don't turn out so good.

As an avid Rangers fan I can say that any advanced defensive metric that has Byrd rated above average in center is missing something. Watching him play center is like watching a chicken with its head cut off. He always takes at least five steps in the wrong direction when the ball is in the air.

Sean - I think the issue is that we're too quick to apply a template based on past test cases without considering individual circumstances.

Early-30's players coming off career years aided by a cozy ballpark tend not to improve. But some do, and so what are the circumstances that would lead to continued improvement at that age?

Whatever they are, the Cubs got it right with Byrd.

I think it is great that you are stepping up and admitting your misjudgment, but I think you have it wrong on a few points here.

The original analysis focused to much on the boost Byrd got from Texas. It seems a bit off the cuff. Park factors are not as dramatic as we sometimes make them out to be. At the extremes they can make huge impacts but going from Arlington to Wrigley isn't the same as going from Petco to US cellular or from Coors to Oakland, both are hitter friendly in different degrees. It shouldn't be that surprising that the Cubs were better informed about how Byrd would play in their park and in their (easier) league.

Also, we hear endlessly about the lack of reliability of single season samples for UZR and yet still refer to it either directly or through WAR. That isn't to say Byrd hasn't been a good CF so far, but it isn't really reasonable to expect him to be much better than average going forward.

Falling back on the cliches like hard working and a good teammate isn't very useful in isolating what is different about Byrd. Those things describe Jeff Francoeur as well as anyone and he can't manage to improve in any circumstance.

I take some exception to the notion that Ramirez and Lee didn't show up to play this year. Ramirez was demonstrably hurt. If your thumb is messed up, you can't grip a bat. If you can't swing, you can't hit. He's largely healthy now, and is at .304/.350/.589 since coming off the DL on June 25th. In that time, he has 17 HR, 51 RBI, 29 total XBH, 14 BB to 32 K in 243 PA; and has raised his OPS from .517 when he went on the DL to today's .751 cumulative total. His .243/.297/.454 calls to mind Cory Snyder or Rob Deer, I know, but he has simply been digging out of a hole.

Lee is an interesting story. Part of his fall-off is his loss of legs. He can't beat out "well-placed" infield grounders anymore, as evidenced by his lower IFH%. Since July 1, Lee has a .276/.346/.453 triple slash with 16 2B and just a 2-to-1 K/BB. In April, despite having a normal LD/GB/FB split, he had a .222 BABIP. Ridiculously awful luck, combined with deteriorating physical ability and plate discipline, put him in his own hole. That BABIP is a good 100 points below his career level, and it's impressive that he's brought it up to a still-below-career-norm .298.

They aren't as good as they once were. But Ramirez still is having a pretty good season, dating to 6/25. His defense is another story entirely, but still. We knew that was coming. Lee's bad luck this year makes sense: he has a high career BABIP, which implies that a season in which he performs at a league "norm" in that category will see a drastic reduction in his offensive production.

2011 will likely feature a similar core among the non-pitchers. Soto and Castillo behind the plate; Ramirez and Castro on the left side. DeWitt at second. Soriano, Byrd and Fukudome in the outfield, with Colvin the "everyday fourth" like CarGo or Andres Torres. First is a big question (Hoffpauir, LaHair, Dunn, shift Ramirez, etc.), and they likely won't compete. But Marlon Byrd should be a solid transition piece into 2012, when Brett Jackson, Hak-Ju Lee, Brandon Guyer, Josh Vitters, and a few other farmhands project to compete for MLB starting jobs. Outside of Soriano, the big [position player] money can be off the books then. And Byrd seems like the kind of guy who could handle falling back into a platoon or 4th OF role professionally and perform well there.