The Meaning of Marlon Byrd
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.