I don’t know what the scariest thing is about the Cubs. It might be that they have baseball’s best record, and a historically excellent run differential. Or maybe it’s that they have baseball’s best record, and a historically excellent run differential, while Jason Heyward has been a worse hitter than Alexei Ramirez (who has been a bad hitter). Heyward hasn’t gotten going yet, not even a little bit, and the Cubs have barely noticed. You might feel like the Cubs are overhyped. I get it. And, you’re wrong.
Let’s preface this with something. We’re about to talk about Heyward’s offensive struggles. Heyward has a career 116 wRC+, and he’s 26 years old, so he’s probably not broken. Not beyond repair. His career wRC+ in the first month is 96 — he’s genuinely something of a slow starter. There’s every reason to expect that Heyward is going to settle into a groove at some point. Typically, given enough time, good players find their level. This doesn’t mean Heyward hasn’t had a bad start, though. He knows it. The coaches know it. And to this point, Heyward has shown a somewhat unusual plan of attack. Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, I don’t know.
We can preface this with another something! Heyward has been nursing a sore wrist. He reportedly first tweaked it in an early series against Arizona. Could be, that’s all we need to know. Maybe that’s everything. Or, maybe it’s not, or maybe it’s nothing at all. Heyward hasn’t used it as an excuse and the Cubs haven’t seemed very worried. It’s easy to blame wrist discomfort for every last offensive ill, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Let’s just agree to keep it in mind.
One thing you might notice just glancing at Heyward’s player page: his hard-hit rate is way down. That’s not surprising, given his offensive profile. He has yet to hit a home run. His soft-hit rate, meanwhile, has climbed. It’s actually higher than his hard-hit rate, by almost a dozen percentage points. That’s objectively terrible. Now let’s introduce some career context. Heyward has played in 23 games this season. Here’s a plot of 23-game rolling averages, over Heyward’s career, showing the difference between hard-hit and soft-hit rate:
Heyward has been down here before. He hasn’t made a habit of it, but we could consider him a “social” weak hitter. He had some deep, deep problems in his sophomore campaign. He hasn’t been that low since, but at least this isn’t unprecedented. I think that’s comforting? Granted, every slump is different, but Heyward’s had slumps. He also has that 116 wRC+. He’s found his level.
There’s another thing that’s easy to notice. Heyward, this year, is seeing more fastballs than ever. Compared to last year, he’s up six percentage points, which is one of the greater increases league-wide. What that suggests is a change in perception — opposing pitchers think Heyward won’t hit the heat so well. Now, most of the Cubs have seen more fastballs, so some of this would just have to do with opposing pitcher identity. But maybe this hints at a vulnerability. Keep that in mind as you look at the following.
Here’s how Heyward has produced over the course of his career. Red means he’s been better; blue means he’s been worse. This is a plot of run values, but you can just think of it as an ordinary hot/cold map.
Heyward, in the past, has been at his best down low. This has held pretty steady. He’s struggled, though, in the upper half of the zone. All that blue tells a pretty convincing story. This isn’t super unusual — plenty of hitters prefer pitches down or up. But that’s Heyward. Now consider what’s next. On the left, Heyward’s swing habits through last season. On the right, Heyward’s swing habits this season.
Heyward, this year, has swung a lot more often at pitches up, and he’s swung less often at pitches down. Put another way: he’s swung more often in areas where he’s been historically weak, and he’s swung less often in areas where he’s been historically strong. These are the weird decisions. Heyward has swung 50% of the time at pitches thigh-high and up. That’s easily a career high. He’s swung 35% of the time at the lower pitches. That’s easily a career low.
To put it differently: in the past, Heyward’s swing rate at low pitches was higher than his swing rate at high pitches, by seven percentage points. This year, Heyward’s swing rate at high pitches is higher than his swing rate at low pitches, by 15 percentage points. He’s reversed what’s been normal, and at least based on what he’s done before, that’s not a good idea.
There are two potential interpretations. One, this is unintentional. Heyward just hasn’t been himself, and his eye is all screwy, and he’s made some bad decisions. Two, this is intentional. Following this line of thinking, maybe the Cubs have made some tweaks and recommended that Heyward work higher up. Maybe they think it would be easier for him to get some loft. If this were to be true, it clearly hasn’t worked out yet, but these things take time. Maybe he’s right on the verge of breaking out.
What we have is what we have. Jason Heyward, at the plate, has been even more frustrating than usual. It could really just all come down to his wrist, but that doesn’t quite explain why he’d be swinging more up, and less down. The Cubs have made certain minor adjustments to Heyward, but Heyward’s career spans countless minor batting adjustments, and he doesn’t seem dramatically different. It’s just his numbers that are awful. With his old swing, part of Heyward’s problem has been pitch selection. He just hasn’t been able to punish those pitches up. If this is on purpose, he simply hasn’t yet gotten comfortable. And maybe he won’t, until he goes back to his old approach. Pretty much every aspect of Jason Heyward’s offense has been worse. Presumably, he will snap out of it. He always has. At that point, it’ll be interesting to see which pitches he’s hitting. Because to this point, he’s tried to hit different pitches.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.