The easiest yes you’ll get in sports is by asking anyone on the field if spring training should be shorter. They agree almost unanimously. The players especially think so, since they’ve been working all offseason, too. The days of coming into town 15 pounds overweight and stepping on the mound or to the plate for the first time in months — those are long gone. Players have been working since after Thanksgiving, and maybe even earlier in some cases.
Players like Jason Heyward, who just came off the worst year of his career with the bat, might have been working even harder. There’s so much to prove. At least in Heyward’s case, the problem might be obvious and the solution seems to be in hand. At least theoretically.
Look back over Heyward’s career, and his weakness is glaring and obvious. Sure, he doesn’t do amazingly on pitches on the outside corner, but neither does the league. But, while the league has a nice large hot spot down the middle, Heyward’s is small. It’s small because that weakness on the inside part of the plate pushes so far into the zone.
Consider this heat map from last season. It depicts Heyward’s isolated slugging by pitch location.
If it’s easy enough for us to identify this relative weakness, you can expect that major-league pitchers are aware of it, too. The data certainly suggests they’re aware of it. Last year, there weren’t many hitters who saw more inside fastballs than Heyward did.
|Player||OPS Inside||Results||% of Pitches|
You can see he didn’t do much with those pitches either. That .386 OPS was the 12th-worst OPS on the inside third of the strike zone among the 238 players with at least 100 pitches seen on the inside third this year. He does not like the ball there.
It’s worth pointing out that he hasn’t always had this problem. There was, of course, 2012, when he hit 27 home runs. That year, his heat map looked like this.
Looking for explanations, you immediately think of mechanics, because Heyward has had famously wiggly hands and a complicated swing. So let’s look at a 2012 swing:
And now a 2016 one:
What leaps off the virtual page for me is how close to his body his hands are tucked in that 2016 clip. If you’re that far in, your first move has to be away from your body. And then back. That creates another step, and more time in between the beginning of your swing and contact. That could hurt you, especially on pitches inside.
The good news is that Heyward knows all of this. And he’s gone to work. Early images from his offseason hitting sessions seem to suggest that the change in his swing is stark. Twitter user Corey Freedman put one of those practice swings up against a 2016 season to highlight the differences.
— Corey Freedman (@CFCubsRelated) December 20, 2016
You’ll notice, from the side, that his hips are clearing faster and more aggressively. That might be easier in the offseason against a soft tosser or off a tee, but he’s also made it easier on himself by not being as closed off before he starts his swing. His hips are more parallel to the plate than before, more open before he starts. It also looks like his bat ‘wraps’ less — it’s less parallel to the ground as his swing starts.
What’s most interesting to me, though, is that he’s added an early move with his hands, before he gets into his load. Watch the very beginning of this video.
We’ll call that a change in hands slot. Heyward is bringing his hands down, that’s true, but he’s also pulling his hands away from his body. Paradoxically, that might make him faster. Yes, it’s another move in a complicated swing, but it’s a move that will set him up so that the first real move — the first move in his swing designed to actually strike the ball — that first move will be towards his body. He’s eliminating the need to push his hands away from his body during the swing by setting his hands up further away.
He won’t know if it’s working until at least spring training, and even then, it’ll take time to familiarize himself with this new swing, to learn at which moment to pull the trigger. And so maybe spring training will be just long enough for Heyward. Even if he has been working all offseason long.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.