Jason Heyward’s Meaningless, Spectacular Defense

The biggest play of last night’s Game Six was a defensive one, but not in a positive manner: a miscommunication between Tyler Naquin in center field and Lonnie Chisenhall in right failed to result in a catch. Two runs scored for Chicago, and the Cubs took a 3-0 lead in just the first inning. The biggest strategic decision, meanwhile, concerned the use of Aroldis Chapman by Joe Maddon, as Chicago’s manager went to his closer in the seventh inning of a 7-2 game. It’s hard to discount the the implications either of Cleveland’s defensive misplay or Maddon’s bullpen management on the outcome of this World Series.

However, Game Six of the World Series also featured an unimportant strategic decision that facilitated some unimportant defensive plays. Even though he scored no runs and recorded zero hits, the decision to start Jason Heyward was likely worth several runs for the Cubs. And even if those runs didn’t ultimately represent the difference between a win and a loss, Heyward’s presence in the game nevertheless revealed how an offensively struggling but defensively forceful player can impact a result.

In the fourth inning of last night’s contest, right after Mike Napoli singled in Jason Kipnis to make the game 7-1, the Chicago Cubs possessed a 94.8% chance of victory. The leverage index was a fairly low 0.47, so even a positive result for Cleveland was unlikely to influence the game greatly. Facing Jake Arrieta, Jose Ramirez struck a ball that lands for a hit 56.8% of the time and goes for extra bases 20% of the time.

Here’s the end of that play:

At first glance, the play appears challenging for Heyward but hardly impossible. As mentioned above, batted balls with similar exit velocity and launch angles were caught around 43% of the time. Nearly half, in other words. What that figure doesn’t account for, however, is Heyward’s position at the start of the play relative to the location of the ball in the field. We can go a little further with the Statcast data.

By doing a few calculations, we can determine that, if he were running in a 40-yard dash in this case, Heyward would have recorded a time of roughly 9.9 seconds, which is really slow for a 40-yard dash. Of course, when Jason Heyward hears the ball off the bat, he doesn’t simply get to sprint straight forward in a line. He has no idea in which direction he might have to run — backwards, forwards, left, right. He decides where to run by looking at a small white object that begins its trajectory roughly 300 feet away while also traveling at 98 mph.

We rarely see an outfielder’s first step when watching the game because both our own eyes and also the cameras themsleves are focused on the batter-pitcher matchup. Heyward is very good at making quick decisions, though: the first step on his acrobatic play near the wall in Game Five occurred within 0.17 seconds.

In the case of this play from Game Six, we know how long the ball was in the air and we also know how far Heyward had to run. As a result, it’s possible to find out how often this play is made. The graph below from Baseball Savant shows how often balls are caught given hang time and distance.


The graph at Baseball Savant itself is interactive, so you can hover over any number of points. You should notice that Heyward’s play isn’t featured in the chart as he had just 2.9 seconds. When players have an extra tenth of a second, they have made the play just 34% of the time. That tenth is significant. Given the same distance, but 3.1 seconds, the play is made 64% of the time. Add five feet to 3.0 seconds hang time, and the play is made just 18% of the time.

This play wasn’t impossible, but it’s one that’s converted only rarely. Not only was the play difficult, but Heyward took a route designed to limit damage. Look at Heyward’s body as he makes the catch.

Heyward is able to come directly in on the ball because his first step was toward the gap. If the ball were hit slightly harder, slightly deeper, or closer to the gap between himself and Fowler, Heyward would probably not have made the catch; he likely would have prevented extra bases by cutting the ball off, however. With that step toward the gap, Heyward was able to run straight at the ball, allowing his body to prevent the ball from getting past him in case of a missed catch.

Ultimately, he was able to make the catch, anyway, closing on the ball quickly enough to get his glove out in the best possible position not only to catch the ball but also use two hands while doing so. Heyward makes a catch that would take a miraculous dive from the few players who could even get to the ball, and he makes it in a fundamentally sound way.

The difficulty of the catch wasn’t lost on Arrieta, who responds, “Well done, sir. I repeat: well done.”

Instead of two runners on and one out, the Cubs now faced a situation featuring two out and a runner at first base, the run expectancy dropping from 0.9 (1.1 if 1st and 3rd and 1.4 if 2nd and 3rd) to 0.2 in that inning. Arrieta would hit the next batter, then walk Coco Crisp. While the Cubs still probably win if Heyward isn’t in the outfield, that inning also had a chance of unraveling quickly.

Then, in the ninth inning, Jason Heyward added a meaningless throw. A meaningless and spectacular throw.

A runner shouldn’t take an extra base down by multiple runs unless he’s sure he’ll be safe. Perez was pretty sure he would be safe. Not only did Perez likely think he’d be safe, but so did the FOX production team. Here’s where the camera was pointed as Perez arrived at second:


With some back-of-the-envelope math, Heyward’s throw traveled around 240 feet in a direct path to second base. The ball was a little high — if allowed to travel further, it would have gone a good deal further. And while it ultimately represented little difference between a win and loss, it might have saved a run as well, the run expectancy dropping from 0.7 to 0.2 as a result of the play.

In a six-run game, Heyward’s two defensive runs didn’t really amount to a whole lot, but if you think he really did save two runs — or maybe you’re feeling generous and credit him with three, given the results of the fourth inning — and also factor in the two runs the Cleveland defense allowed, a six-run deficit becomes a one-run deficit based almost solely on defensive play. In a recent chat, someone asked Dave Cameron why FanGraphs was so obsessed with Jason Heyward. A lot of Heyward articles have appeared on these pages. Cameron’s response was essentially that Heyward is a very good player having a very bad year, which is true.

Heyward also tends to do interesting things, like steal third, perhaps needlessly, hit unlikely playoff home runs, suffer a 50-point drop in wRC+ in one season due to a glaring hole in his swing — and yet still produce a nearly average season due to elite defense — and finally, get benched in the playoffs despite his position in the first year of a $184 million contract. The valuation of defense tends to confound us perhaps a little more than it should. A run saved is as good as a run scored, but we all have difficulty, like Joe Maddon has, applying that maxim. We point to factors–things like sample size–but when the numbers are there, and the eye test confirms what the numbers say, playing an elite defensive player shouldn’t be that hard.

Hitters come up four or five times a game with the opportunity to impact a game — guaranteed chances to do something. The scale isn’t the same on defense. Sure Joe Maddon doesn’t know if Kris Bryant is going to go 0-for-5 or 3-for-4 with a couple doubles and a walk to get to a hypothetical .300/.400/.500 stat line, but he knows by putting him in the lineup, he is going to get those opportunities and over the course of the season it evens out. Opportunities aren’t uniform on defense. Jason Heyward got two fantastic opportunities to save runs in a win-or-go-home game of the World Series. It just so happened that the game was a blowout, and those saved runs weren’t as important as they might otherwise have been. He might not get those opportunities again tonight, but the possibility is good enough and the impact great enough that starting Heyward in the most important game of the year is a no-brainer, regardless of his hitting line.

We hoped you liked reading Jason Heyward’s Meaningless, Spectacular Defense by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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John B M
John B M

Given how Arrieta faltered in that 4th inning, and the ramifications for the Cubs’ bullpen if they’d had to pull him there, I think the Heyward catch was not meaningless. Of course, I wish I could be writing about how the cushion allowed them to only use Chapman for 1 batter in the 7th, but I guess I’m not the manager.


Heyward’s play saved a single in a 7-0 game when the chances of the Indians coming back were less than 5% – and that assumes all things are equal as in a regular game, when in fact Maddon would have pulled out all the stops (and did regardless) including pitching his closer for multiple innings.