Jason Heyward had a pretty disappointing regular season in 2016 after signing a contract worth nearly $200 million the previous offseason. Heyward altered his swing in the spring, as he has frequently throughout his career, then hurt his wrist at the very beginning of the season. How much either or both deserves blame isn’t clear, but what we do know is the results were disastrous. In the last 100 years, there have been 4,578 outfielders to qualify for the batting title. Heyward’s 72 wRC+ ranks 4,511th among that group. In other words, we’re dealing with a pretty rare situation. To find out how rare — and what the implications of it might be — I went out searching for the most Heyward-like seasons in history.
To look for players like Heyward, we don’t have to understand his precise approach to the game, we merely have to run some stats over on our leaderboards. I started by looking at qualified outfielders from the last 100 years who’d recorded a single-season wRC+ below 80. I eliminated strike years and players with less than a full season of experience prior to the poor-hitting year. Because Jason Hyeward is a good defender, I looked only at players who were worth at least 10 runs above average on defense and whose offense wasn’t so bad as to render them worth less than a win overall. To keep things in the same ballpark age-wise, I looked at player seasons between the ages of 25 and 29. (Heyward just finished his age-26 season.)
I found five Heywards.
So these are some of the more bizarre player seasons in history. For a player to be this bad, he needs to be good enough to earn the confidence of the manager and organization. He also needs to be very poor on offense, sufficiently good defense to make up for the terrible offense, and to do it in the outfield, where the positional adjustment is either negative (like in the corners) or just slightly positive (like in center field). It’s easier to do this as a catcher or shortstop, where the positional adjustment gives you a bunch of runs right off the bat, but more difficult in the outfield.
As you might expect, these players came into these respective seasons with varying levels of experience. But all of them ended up in the same place as Jason Heyward last season. Part of the reason Heyward’s season was such a surprise was that the decline he experienced from his previously established levels was so enormous. Over the two years prior to 2016, Heyward hit .281/.355/.411 with a 115 wRC+ and put up 11.2 WAR. ZiPS had Heyward pegged for a .274/.352/.433 line entering 2016. That sort of offensive output would have given him a five-win campaign, completely reasonable for a player heading into his age-26 season given his past history. Even in his previous worst season, back in 2011, he hit .227/.319/.389 and his wRC+ was a nearly league-average 96 on the season.
Did any of the players above suffer similar declines?
|BA||OBP||SLG||WAR/600||wRC+||Bad Year wRC+||wRC+ Drop|
Three of the five players experienced major drops like Heyward. Omar Moreno and Brian Hunter*, on the other hand, weren’t really playing that much below expectations. Offensively, Heyward most resembles Darin Erstad. Accounting for offense and defense, however, seems to make Willie Davis the closer fit.
*For those who remember the 90s, when there were multiple Brian Hunters, this is the one who started his career with the Houston Astros and also played for the Tigers, not the one who started his career with the Braves. Combined, the two Brian Hunters totaled 6.8 WAR, which is well behind the two Alex Gonzalezes’ 20.3 WAR.
As for how these players did the year immediately following their nosedive, Erstad’s bounce back was definitely the biggest.
|Two Yrs Before wRC+||Bad Year wRC+||Next Year wRC+|
Erstad’s random career year came right after the worst-hitting season of his life. At the other end of the spectrum, Brian Hunter got even worse. Willie Davis and Omar Moreno went right back to what they were doing before, while Bill Virdon gained some of what he lost. We only have five players here, so it isn’t as if we can make too many predictive statements, but if you’re worried that all hope is lost with Heyward and that he can’t ever become the player he once was, there is some encouraging news. This has happened before, and players have gotten past it.
Here’s what the players’ numbers from above looked like for the three years after they experienced a huge dive.
|Two Yrs Before wRC+||Bad Year wRC+||Three Years After|
We don’t yet know what the future holds, but on average, the players above gained back about half of what they originally lost. Heyward is better than these players, which also means he suffered one of the steeper falls. If Heyward could gain back half of what he lost, that would place his wRC+ around 94. Assuming he maintains his defense over his age-27 through age-29 seasons, that would make him roughly a three-win player. On the free-agent market, that would make Heyward worth his salary over the next three seasons. Of course, the Cubs would still be on the hook for another four years, but it wouldn’t be an albatross contract holding the team down.
While there’s a chance Heyward doesn’t ever get his swing back together, the example of Willie Davis seems pretty apt. For Davis’s career before 1965, he’d recorded a 104 wRC+ and was worth 4.4 WAR per 600 plate appearances. For one season, Davis had a 77 wRC+ and put up a 2.1 WAR season. From 1966 on, Davis had a 108 wRC+ and was worth 3.0 WAR/600 and put up 34.4 WAR at age 26 and later. He had his best run from age 29 through age 33, averaging 4.6 WAR per season. We could argue that viewing Heyward through the lens of Davis is a bit rosey, but he is probably the closest when it comes to a career before a big drop. Plus, it’s spring. It’s a time for optimism.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.