Pablo Sandoval signed a five-year, $95-million contract with the Boston Red Sox Monday, making him, in all likelihood, the highest-paid free-agent position player of the winter. He’s a solid player, but given his body type, his uncertain positional future and his lack of a single elite skill, several people whose opinions on the game I deeply respect have questioned the wisdom of the commitment the Red Sox made.

That’s especially true because, as those pundits pointed out, Chase Headley is on the market, too, and he and Sandoval are nearly equal in terms of their overall value, at least if you consult the right evaluation systems. Yet, no one thinks Headley is going to approximate Sandoval’s salary. He might make $60 million over four years, but even that seems to be the high end of his market. Why?

I don’t think the answer here is anything mystical. There are interesting theories we could kick around, about how the Red Sox paid Sandoval far more than the market would have otherwise borne because he fits Fenway Park so well, or about how Headley’s unusual career path might mask his value, but I rise in support of the notion that it’s really this simple:

Pablo Sandoval and Chase Headley, 2012-14

Plate Appearances True Average Strikeout %
Season Sandoval Headley Sandoval Headley Sandoval Headley
2012 442 699 .292 .320 13.3 22.5
2013 584 600 .275 .278 13.5 23.7
2014 638 531 .284 .261 13.3 23.0

MLB is experiencing several historical extremes at once. Strikeouts are dominating the game like never before. Right-handed batters are outperforming left-handed ones, for the first time ever. And because nearly everyone is dependent upon a strong BABIP to succeed offensively, a violent variance has overtaken the game, such that hardly anyone offers stability or reliability at the plate.

Like it or not, and despite even the best efforts to ignore it, a creeping cognitive bias will always invite us to weigh very recent information much more heavily than older information. We will also always see trend lines in data, when they’re available, even if the trends are illusory. And all of us, at our cores, are risk-averse. Pablo Sandoval isn’t risky. He’s consistent, unaffected by the shifting offensive environment, and coming off his healthiest season on record. Headley is in the wrong place at the wrong time. As things stand, Sandoval is more appealing, because he can make contact, deliver consistent production and weather the league’s increasing bias against left-handed offense.

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