Steve Slowinsky over at Fangraphs had an interesting article on the value of a player’s character and makeup. There is a tendency within the sabermetric community to completely dismiss things we cannot objectively measure as being meaningless, but recent studies in behavioral psychology suggest that talent is not necessarily innate, and that certain character traits such as work ethic and self control may be better predictors of success than intelligence or natural ability. I don’t think Slowinsky is implying that teams should overpay for a player simply because he brings intangibles like grit and veteran leadership to the clubhouse, especially since there is no way to separate the effect on player performance of such personality traits from other statistical noise. However, it does make sense, particularly for a team with a lot of young players, to target free agents who are both talented and decent human beings.
This, of course, brings up the case of Michael Cuddyer: an average outfielder whose sunny personality has made him a favorite amongst both fans and teammates alike. He will be a free agent after the 2011 season, and whether or not he re-signs with the Twins depends a lot on how much they value his intangibles.
I don’t think there is any doubt that Cuddyer is overpaid relative to his skills as a ballplayer. This is a man with a career .270/.342/.450 slash line, .343 wOBA, .180 ISO, and 109 wRC+. He has never met a breaking ball four feet outside the strikezone that he wouldn’t swing at. To be fair, Cuddyer has battled his share of injuries over the past five years, which likely sapped his power (it’s not a coincidence that his best seasons, 2006 and 2009, were the only ones in which he was fully healthy). And though he’s versatile enough to play whatever position Gardy has asked of him, he doesn’t play any of them particularly well, with a career -27.1 UZR/150 between the outfield, first base, third base, and, (I sh!t you not) a brief stint at second. He’s been worth a combined 3.0 fWAR (1.4 rWAR) since 2008, but he’s been paid $23 million in that time.
Still, it is really hard not to like Cuddy as a person. He’s been asked to play almost every position on the diamond over the years, but he’s never complained about it and has never blamed his mediocre production on being jerked around so much. Typically, players in a similar situation are quick to blame the organization for messing around with them if they put up disappointing numbers. Cuddy’s always friendly and approachable towards fans, and the media, which might explain why members of the mainstream media consider him one of the most underrated players in baseball. Considering that he is also one of the hardest-working players on the team, Cuddyer is exactly the type of veteran player you would want in the clubhouse to mentor the younger players. It’s just a shame that he isn’t better at actually playing baseball.
Bill Smith has made some head-scratching moves over the years, but he doesn’t appear to value intangibles as much as Gardy. Or at least he doesn’t value them enough to invest a large chunk of payroll in a guy who provides little more than grit and leadership. He declined to pick up Nick Punto’s $5 million option, and though he saw fit to hand Cuddyer an extension worth more than $30 million, let’s not forget that Cuddyer was just one year removed from a 3.1 fWAR season at the time. Had he been healthy enough to maintain that level of production, the contract would actually have been pretty close to market value. Though the Twins have plenty of money coming off the books and there is little doubt they would love to bring Cuddyer back, it’s unlikely they will engage in a bidding war with anyone else for his services. He will be 34 years old and in the decline phase of his career, which obviously does not bode well for a guy with little more than average power and doesn’t get on base much. The outfield is not a position where the team is lacking in depth, with Ben Revere and Joe Benson likely to be ready as soon as next year. If not, there is always a ton of cheap, replacement-level corner outfielders available on the free agent market who could fill in until some of the prospects are ready. Unless he is willing to take a drastic paycut, Cuddyer will likely be patrolling the outfield for someone else next season.