Is Jason Heyward’s Broken Swing on the Mend?

Often it seems that anything written in April, any attempt at analysis, any assessment of a player, must be accompanied by a disclaimer that it’s small-sample-size season. That same sense of caution applies to this report, certainly. It’s generally dangerous to read into any limited sample of work — especially at the beginning of a season, when we’re most starved for actual baseball, when we’re most apt to rush to a judgement or make an extrapolation.

Still, some things occur at this time of year that do matter.

Sometimes, of course, the adjustment and changes made in the offseason and during spring do lead to results.

And a good start for Jason Heyward was important — if for no other reason than to quell lineup controversy and ensure playing time.

Last October, the last time most of us saw Heyward, his swing was broken. There were times, as a neutral observer, that it was difficult to watch him struggle with his awkward swing, sapped both of power and confidence. Last season, Heyward’s average exit velocity of 87.4 mph ranked 282nd among hitters 379 hitters with at least 100 batted-ball events, a figure sandwiched between those produced by Delino DeShields and Kolten Wong.

While Heyward has always had a mechanical-looking swing, the production and velocity was well down from his 2015 levels, when he slashed .293/.359/.439 and produced an average exit velocity of 90.7 mph. That season, combined with his longer track record of defensive excellence and above-average offense, earned him an eight-year, $184 million contract.

That contract looked like one of the few errors made to date during the Theo Epstein Era in Chicago. Heyward was going to become a very expensive defensive specialist if he posted another 72 wRC+, if he suffered an unusual loss of offensive abilities in the midst of his prime, like Melvin Upton Jr.

So this offseason, with no monetary incentive, with pride and professionalism serving as primary motivators, Heyward went to work.

You’re probably aware — Ken Rosenthal reported it in detail, if you’re not — that Hewyard and the Cubs’ hitting instructors began re-vamping his swing immediately after the World Series. From Rosenthal’s story:

Entering the offseason, hitting coach John Mallee implemented a multi-faceted plan, making Heyward uncomfortable so he could develop a new approach and grow more comfortable again.

No longer would Heyward twist his top hand and wrap the bat around his shoulder. His bat angle would be more vertical, removing the tension from his shoulders. He would lower his hands to be in a more relaxed position and move his lower half first, allowing his hands to work.

Drill after drill, day after day, week after week, Heyward worked to undo all of his old habits and establish muscle memory with his new. He’s 0-for-8 thus far in Cactus League play, yet Mallee said that he couldn’t be happier with his pupil’s new approach.

“He may be better than he ever was,” Mallee said. “I’m very happy for him. His mind is in the right place. He has done a lot of mental stuff. It’s really special what he has put into this.”

And the very early results? After struggling this spring, the first week of the season has to be encouraging for Heyward. While contact was never a problem with Heyward, he has struck out just three times in his first 25 plate appearances this season, and 38% of his contact has been categorized as “hard,” another step in the right direction.

And after he endured a season that was laden with weak contact, consider Heyward’s five plate appearances against Milwaukee on Sunday and his last plate appearance of his previous game on Saturday…

That’s six straight plate appearances from which Heyward produced an exit velocity of 96 mph or greater.

How about some video evidence? Here’s Heyward ripping a triple to center (99.5 mph) off Zach Davies and over the head of Keon Broxton. Not an easy thing to do!

Here’s Heyward lining out (96.8 mph) to a diving Ryan Braun

With a different launch angle, this 100.5 mph ground ball does more damage…

Heyward with another 100 mph ground ball, this time for a single…

And in his final plate appearance of the day, Heyward just missed blasting a home run to center field…

We will have to see if this was a one-game, one-week outlier, or if Heyward’s mechanical and mental adjustments get him back to produce a 120 wRC+ or better, like he did in 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015.

If the Cubs can fix Heyward, it will be more evidence of the impressive value-adding abilities of the organization and its hitting instructors. Recall how after missing nearly the entire season last year, Kyle Schwarber returned for the World Series, where he seemingly barreled up everything, posting a .971 OPS. If Heyward can fix his swing, it will be an example of the importance of rostering prideful, dedicated players. Schwarber was driven to return from injury just as Heyward is also driven to return to what he once was.

It’s premature to say Heyward’s swing has been fixed — Monday was a step back with two Ks and a pop up — but the left-handed hitter and the Cubs now have some positive evidence and Statcast readings upon which to build. Heyward desperately needed to be in a good place out of the gates. Maybe he is.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 years ago

Heyward has plenty of financial incentive to bounce back or improve or whatever you want to call it. He can opt out after next season, when he’ll still be in his 20s. Even getting back to his previous level will enable him to earn tens of millions more, and also allow him to sign a contract that extends further into his 30s, giving him much more security.

Not that I’m disagreeing that he is hardworking and prideful.

7 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

He aint opting out of that contract. It like one of those “when hell freezes over” things. He will never opt out because a team would only sign him to one year contract, maybe an option for two years @ like 3-5 million, that’s it. You can take this one to the bank he will NEVER opt out of his current contract.

There aint much more security, in the entire world in fact, then being a 4th outfielder and making 30 million a year. He will literally barley be on the field by the end of this season.

Da Bum
7 years ago

He’s worth considerably more than that if he were to opt out.

7 years ago

Why do you even bother to post things that are so obviously incorrect? If you don’t care at all about fact and stat based analysis, why do you waste your time on a site like fangraphs?