One could argue that, during the 2015-16 offseason, Jason Heyward was my hill. If that’s the case, I am now mostly dead. After producing almost six wins in his final campaign with the Cardinals, the outfielder recorded just a lone win in each of his first two seasons with Chicago.
I say mostly dead, though, because Heyward’s bat is showing some signs of life: since coming off the disabled list a month ago, he’s hitting .307/.347/.489 with a 124 wRC+. While that represents a hot streak for the Cubs version of Heyward, it pretty closely approximates what the team probably expected from Heyward when they signed him. Whatever the case, it is the best run he has produced since the joining the team.
Heyward’s swing changes have been frequent over the past few years. He has altered his mechanics nearly every season of his career. The Cubs hoped to unlock more power out of Heyward after he posted a 121 wRC+ for the Cardinals in a 2015 campaign during which he took a bunch of walks, limited his strikeouts, ran the bases well, and exhibited slightly below-average power. The Cubs weren’t wrong to try and unearth that version of Heyward. With his defense, baserunning, batting eye, and contact skills, the addition of a bit more power might have made Heyward an MVP candidate.
As you probably know, Heyward’s adjustments did not translate to on-field success for Heyward in 2016 (although the presence of a wrist injury almost certainly played a roll). As you probably also know, the Cubs won the World Series. I advocated for Heyward to continue playing in the playoffs despite his struggles. I noted his spectacular defense. With my bias showing, I looked for rays of hope and a potential rebound entering the 2017 season. I don’t think I was the only one. Eno Sarris wrote about Heyward’s work that offseason. Ken Rosenthal wrote about it, too. A few weeks into the season, optimism abounded, with Travis Sawchik wondering if Heyward’s changes were working and Sahadev Sharma finding hope early on. That hope gave way a bit with more hand injuries and a few stints on the disabled list, but there was even optimism in August that Heyward was getting better.
In the end, Heyward failed to amass 500 plate appearances, and while his 88 wRC+ was an improvement over his disastrous 2016 season, he was still a below-average player. Heading into the season with a new hitting coach, there was some optimism, but it was more tempered than in years past. With Heyward’s recent run of success, optimism reigns again. Given the changes he has made throughout his career, though, it is probably tough to find a reason why this breakout is real or why it will or won’t stick. This is what Joe Maddon had to say in an article from P.J. Mooney at the Athletic.
“There’s nothing new or different from him,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s just setting up better. His hands — you see how the ball’s coming off the bat — it’s kind of snapping. There’s no push in his swing. It’s all snap right now and that’s the difference.”
I’m no hitting expert, but the ball “kind of snapping” doesn’t appear to be too specific. He’s been changing his hand setup seemingly every other week for a few years. Maybe Heyward’s hands and wrists are healthier than they have been in a really long time. Maybe he’s just on a decent run for the first time in a while. One thing is for certain: Heyward has never hit this well as a Cub. The graph below shows Heyward’s rolling 40-game wRC+ going back to the 2015 season, before he joined the Cubs. The graph also includes zone rate. Pitchers will tell a hitter if they are afraid, and they haven’t been afraid of Heyward in some time.
When Heyward got hot in St. Louis, pitchers refused to throw him a lot of strikes. In early 2016, though, he began to see more pitches in the zone; as the summer wore on, pitchers challenged him even more frequently. That trend stuck through the 2017 season and the early part of this year, too. Zone rate, of course, doesn’t tell the whole story, but it can indicate how cautious pitchers are being with a hitter. In the case of Heyward, they were becoming less cautious.
Another way in which hitters frequently get themselves in trouble is if they begin to chase pitches. Heyward has typically been a selective hitter, but that hasn’t always correlated to success for him.
We see here that Heyward wasn’t swinging much outside the zone in 2015. Even when he was struggling in 2016, he was still fairly patient. Last year, he began reaching for pitches more, but he also hit better than he had in 2016. This season, as his hitting numbers get better, he’s swinging at more and more pitches out of the strike zone. What’s interesting about Heyward’s profile is that swinging at pitches outside the strike zone doesn’t hurt him much. What has hurt him at times is making contact outside the strike zone, as the graph below shows.
Heyward’s best run of 2015 coincided with a contact rate below 70%, while his rough 2016 season was punctuated by several very high contact rates. His recent run has seen a lot more swings outside of the zone and a lot more whiffs there, as well. It’s possible Heyward is a victim of his own great hands. If those very quick hands are getting to balls out of the strike zone, he’s making contact on pitches with which he’s unlikely to succeed. Heyward put up a .240 wOBA on batted balls outside the zone in 2016 and 2017, ranking 206th out of 220 players with at least 100 batted balls, per Baseball Savant. His .321 wOBA on balls in the strike zone wasn’t great either, but making contact on balls out of the zone is not ideal.
When those quick hands allow Heyward to make contact in the strike zone, he can do some damage. In the clip below, we see Heyward getting around on an inside fastball at 99 mph.
The pitch is up a bit, but it is a 99-mph sinker from a pitcher who hadn’t given up a home run all year. Heyward’s quick hands create what Maddon called that “snap” when the ball hits the bat. In Heyward’s only year in St. Louis, his average exit velocity was 89 mph. In his first two seasons with the Cubs, Heyward averaged 86 mph. He’s back up at 89 mph this season — and, even better for Heyward, he’s hitting at more ideal launch angles. He pounded the ground in 2015 and hit the ball in the air more the past two seasons, albeit weakly. This year, he’s combined the hard contact with more line drives and flies, as seen in the chart below from Baseball Savant.
The bulk of those batted balls are between 0 and 20 degrees, and that’s where Heyward is going to make good contact. Heyward’s xwOBA is currently .363, about 40 points higher than his actual wOBA. If Heyward keeps hitting the ball with the same authority, he’s going to get better results than he is right now. It’s easy to think of Heyward as a bust given he signed a contract worth nearly $200 million. One of the more unique factors when Heyward hit free agency was his age. Heyward is still just 28 years old.
When Lorenzo Cain was 27 years old, he had an 80 wRC+ for the season, worse than Heyward last year. Cain, a late-bloomer, just got an $80 million deal through his age-36 season while Heyward will receive another $115 million or so (factoring in his deferred signing bonus) for the five years after this one. That contract will run out after Heyward’s age-33 season. The deal never pays Heyward more than $22 million per year, and even if the free-agent market cost is depressed or stagnant, the expectation for Heyward based on the contract is never more than a three-win player. His pace puts him pretty close to that mark right now. His projection puts him closer to 2.2 WAR. His potential is still well above that mark.
Contracts that look like busts early on rarely ever recover. That’s because players are generally out of their prime when they sign and decline has set in. Heyward’s youth puts him in a unique position to make up for lost time. It’s possible this last month is just a blip for a player who can’t quite recover. It’s also possible that this new Heyward is the old Heyward, and by the end of next season, we are talking about him as a potential free agent. As disappointing as his last few seasons have been at the plate, Heyward still has the opportunity to be a great player once again.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.