Would you believe me if I told you Jason Heyward’s play hasn’t cost the Cubs anything this postseason? You might. After all, following their victory over the Dodgers on Saturday, the Cubs are now heading to the World Series. That said, you might be more inclined to believe that the Cubs advanced to the World Series in spite of Jason Heyward’s poor play. After all, in 30 postseason plate appearances, he’s reached base just four times — and one of those four was the product of an intentional walk. Heyward has followed up a very poor regular season at the plate with an even worse postseason, and after several benchings in the earlier rounds of the playoffs, there’s a question as to whether Heyward should start a game in the World Series. And there’s not an easy answer.
In the games during which he’s been benched, Heyward’s replacements, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora, have combined for an overall 0-for-17 mark with two walks, a sac bunt, and one double play (including all PA from Soler and Amora). Heyward hasn’t had too many big opportunities in the field, but his 90 mph throw to nab Adrian Gonzalez at the plate in Game One of the NLCS was an important moment in that contest. And for as poor as Heyward’s been offensively, he’s at least been timely: two of his four hits have been of the leadoff, extra-base variety in one-run ballgames, so his WPA in the playoffs is actually the same as Ben Zobrist‘s (at -0.32) and not too far off of Dexter Fowler’s -0.15 — to say nothing of the defensive plays not counted in WPA. Of course, looking at the past 10 games and counting a couple timely hits as worth more due to sequencing is a very poor way to make future decisions. If the Cubs knew in advance Heyward would hit that poorly in the first two rounds, they likely wouldn’t have played him.
Arriving at an accurate estimate of Jason Heyward’s true talent level right now is pretty difficult. Over the course of a long season, Heyward’s hitting has been dreadful. In July, August Fagerstrom examined how Heyward had lost the ability to hit low strikes, which he had done quite well previously. The month after that, Jeff Sullivan noted that Heyward’s problem wasn’t one of luck; Heyward’s exit velocity was down and he making less hard contact, especially relative to his rate of soft contact.
Heyward has put the ball in the air more this year, which was likely a goal for Heyward and the Cubs coaching staff this spring, but that adjustment hasn’t yielded positive results. Heyward, who has tinkered with his stance and swing at the plate nearly every year in the big leagues, added a double toe tap to his swing with the idea that he would get to more fastballs on the hands.
Here’s his swing last year without the double toe tap:
Look at the movement of his feet and the location his hands when he starts his swing. Now here’s what Heyward looked like for most of this season.
The idea behind the toe tap is to get Heyward started a little bit earlier — and potentially to eliminate the hole inside on his hands — so he can (theoretically) pull those balls in the air with power. Getting his hands a little lower and in a bit better position to swing also (theoretically) provides him a better opportunity to get under the ball. Generally speaking, fly balls and line drives have higher exit velocities, so getting the ball in the air more should increase exit velocity.
Whatever the idea behind Heyward’s mechanical adjustments entering the season, they seem to have produced the opposite effect. He went from one recording one of the highest exit velocities on ground balls in all of major-league baseball to a merely middle-of-the-pack figure, per Baseball Savant. While putting the ball on the ground sacrifices power, those balls are more likely to go for hits. Doing a poor job when putting the ball in the air compounded the issue.
Heyward has since abandoned the toe tap, and gone back to a stance and swing closer to what he exhibited last season.
Perhaps keeping his hands higher is what helped provide power on those low pitches before this season — and, with his large frame and long arms, adding a toe tap didn’t end up helping his timing. Heyward saw more fastballs this season than in any during his career, and only Angel Pagan and DJ LeMahieu saw a higher percentage of fastballs in the majors. It would seem, in other words, that opposing pitchers haven’t been hesitant to challenge him. His change back to his previous stance hasn’t yet proved fruitful, his struggles continuing into the postseason.
So what is Heyward now? His projections currently put him at a 100 wRC+, not quite splitting the difference between his terrible 2016 and his solid 120 wRC+ from the 2015 season. We can’t discount the fact that Heyward’s wrist, which was injured in the second series of the season, might have sapped some of his power, regardless of stance or mechanics. Let’s say we think Heyward in his current form is compromised, and that his 72 wRC+ over the course of the season represents his current talent level. His defense, which was seemingly unaffected by his struggles at the plate, was great as usual. So even with the batting deficiencies, Heyward was worth 1.6 WAR over roughly 600 plate appearances.
Heyward has a few potential replacements. In the first few games in Cleveland, the designated hitter will be used and David Ross is likely to catch Jon Lester. Perhaps Miguel Montero will catch Jake Arrieta in Game Two. Willson Contreras is an option who projects as an average hitter — therefore profiling as a good to very good player at catcher — but he doesn’t provide the same benefits as Heyward in the outfield. Even if Contreras is average defensively in the corner outfield, which might be a stretch, that makes him a 1.3 WAR player over 600 plate appearances.
If Kyle Schwarber makes a return to the Cubs and serves as Chicago’ designated hitter, that means Jorge Soler could be freed up to play outfield. Right now, Soler is a slightly above-average hitter, and even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and say his defense is average in left field, he still projects as just a 1.5 WAR player over 600 plate appearances. Joe Maddon’s other option, Albert Almora, only projects for a 75 wRC+, essentially at Heyward’s 2016 regular-season level. He likely plays above-average defense, but it’s unlikely that he’s as good right now as the best right fielder in the game, putting him closer to a 1.0 WAR per 600 plate appearances.
While Heyward has been lost all year at the plate, and he certainly hasn’t helped himself with his performance so far this postseason, it’s not clear that he isn’t still the best option for the Cubs in the World Series. The other factor going in Heyward’s favor are the pitching matchups. When Heyward was benched, the starting pitchers were Madison Bumgarner, Rich Hill and Clayton Kershaw, all left-handers. In addition, two of Heyward’s starts were against lefties in Matt Moore and Clayton Kershaw. Cleveland isn’t likely to present a platoon advantage for Almora, Contreras or Soler — and Schwarber seems unlikely to be ready to start the outfield.
It hasn’t been easy to watch Heyward struggle at the plate during the regular season or playoffs, but with a very talented and deep Cubs offense, carrying Heyward’s bat to get his glove is probably a worthy trade. He’s likely to continue struggling at the plate and there are going to be a few mid-game plate appearances against Andrew Miller that figure to be nearly hopeless, but the alternatives and circumstances don’t present the same any obvious alternatives. Neither Heyward’s contract nor manager loyalty should be enough to justify a start, but even a compromised Jason Heyward is likely a better option for the Cubs than the rest of the corner-outfield options.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.