Luck Has Not Been Jason Heyward’s Problem

The worst hitter on the Cubs has also been their most expensive. For Jason Heyward, there are two silver linings. One, he’s impossibly rich, and he can provide for himself and his family without ever feeling a great deal of concern. He’s living and shall live a privileged existence. Two, the Cubs are so good Heyward hasn’t yet been the focus. People have noticed his numbers, sure, and everyone would prefer him to be more successful, but there isn’t that angst. Heyward has mostly avoided the spotlight, which is something, given the contract he signed.

That was a controversial contract, you’ll remember. One totally justified by WAR, but one that needed for WAR to be accurate, defensive metrics and all. The attack on Heyward was that he wasn’t a good enough hitter, and only excellent hitters should get that kind of money. I can say this: Even the Heyward skeptics wouldn’t have expected him to be this bad. He’s hit like an infield backup. Last year’s wRC+ was 121.

What’s the matter with the Cubs’ Gold Glove outfielder? If you listen to them tell it, a big component has been straight-up bad luck. It can happen — the public always underestimates the importance of luck. I don’t think Jason Heyward has gotten much of any good luck. But there has been a bigger issue.

Earlier I was browsing this post by Jesse Rogers. I’ll pull a few lines. Heyward, for example:

“If you’re hitting the ball hard and not getting results, what else can you do?”

This is from the very next paragraph:

Manager Joe Maddon has called Heyward the “unluckiest” left-hander in the league[…]

It’s not hard to see it, if you look for it. Heyward is too young and too good to be this bad. He has way too much talent, and he’s running what would be his lowest BABIP in years. If you split just by Heyward’s line drives, he’s running what would be a career-low BABIP and a career-low isolated slugging percentage. Heyward has been robbed on quality hits, probably more than the average bat. Players remember those. Ideally, I could calculate an expected outcome for every single Jason Heyward batted ball, using Statcast information, but I’m not that smart, nor do I have that time. I suspect that Heyward’s expected numbers would be better than his actual numbers.

Yet to me, the problem isn’t that Heyward is missing a handful of singles. As I write this, Heyward has four home runs. Four is not very many home runs. It’s not simply bad luck; Jason Heyward has hit worse. When he’s put the ball in play, he’s put worse balls in play.

It’s 2016, so the first thing a lot of us do is jump over to Baseball Savant. There, you can find something revealing. There are 333 players who have had at least 50 batted balls recorded by Statcast in each of the last two seasons. Compared to 2015, Heyward’s 2016 average exit velocity is down 3.6 miles per hour, which is tied for the sixth-biggest drop. That might not feel like a big dip, but it clearly stands out.

Of course, it’s not perfect. Averages are never perfect, and Statcast doesn’t record every single baseball hit. So I want to show you something related. It’s slightly subjective, but we have every player’s hard-hit rate and soft-hit rate. I like to combine them, subtracting the latter from the former. Here now is Heyward’s career, in terms of hard-hit rate minus soft-hit rate:

Jason Heyward’s Batted Balls
Season Player Hard – Soft% League Average Percentile
2010 Jason Heyward 23.6% 12.0% 88%
2011 Jason Heyward -4.9% 0.0% 25%
2012 Jason Heyward 17.8% 12.8% 64%
2013 Jason Heyward 6.8% 13.4% 20%
2014 Jason Heyward 2.1% 10.8% 12%
2015 Jason Heyward 6.7% 10.2% 28%
2016 Jason Heyward -2.5% 12.5% 4%
Percentile rank out of players with at least 250 plate appearances.

Something weird happened in 2011, which you can see in the league-average column. That can happen with these subjective metrics, so we don’t have to pretend they’re something they’re not, but this is why I’m showing Heyward’s percentile rankings. It’s interesting to observe the whole extent of his range. As a rookie, Heyward resembled a legitimate slugger. He got back to that, somewhat, in his third season. But Heyward, even when successful, forged a close relationship with softly-hit baseballs. And this year that relationship is closer than ever. Heyward this year has more softly-hit batted balls than strongly-hit batted balls, at least by these measures. That’s down from even the recent record, and it’s no wonder the hits haven’t been there. The batted balls just haven’t been there.

If Heyward were hitting the ball the same, maybe we could buy the luck argument. Instead, luck is only a partial explanation, as Heyward has been making too frequent sub-optimal contact. You see in the table that Heyward so far ranks in the bottom five percent. A selection of his company: Erick Aybar, Billy Hamilton, Ben Revere, and Ketel Marte. Heyward has proven he doesn’t have to be a lot better than this, but he does need to be better than this. He can’t keep making such lousy contact.

So why talk about luck? This is where psychology might come into play. Now, in this paragraph, I’m just guessing, but if you’re Heyward, you’re going to want to try to keep your confidence up. And if you’re Joe Maddon, you’re going to want to try to keep Heyward’s confidence up. You’re going to want to make him believe he’s doing better than the numbers show, and this might be related to how the Cubs are working on Heyward’s swing. The numbers show that, oddly, Heyward is swinging more often at pitches up in the zone. That could be a deliberate tweak. And there are tweaks being made to Heyward’s stance. A shot of Heyward in 2015:


Here’s Heyward recently, in 2016, with his hands tucked in:


Throughout Heyward’s career, he’s made big adjustments in the box, and he’s making more with the Cubs. It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re not producing, but this could be a way of the Cubs trying to get him through until he finds his productivity. They don’t necessarily have to believe it’s bad luck; they would just need Heyward to think it, until everything’s finally smooth. It would require the belief that this is just an ugly transition period, and in the end it’ll all be worth it.

I don’t know if it’ll be worth it, but Heyward has plenty of time. He can’t be judged yet, although if he could, the judgments would be negative. Making things worse, there’s this part: Heyward’s average opponent last year was a roughly league-average pitcher. His average opponent this year has a 108 ERA-. So Heyward has scuffled even despite a relatively soft slate of enemy arms, and that could be a counter to the bad-luck argument. Maybe a few line drives have been snagged, but maybe a few of those line drives shouldn’t have existed in the first place, if everything were balanced.

The problem isn’t bad luck. The problem seems to be too much bad contact. Now, in fairness, in the last few weeks, Heyward has improved some, by those measures. There’s much improvement left to go. At least, if the Cubs get their way.

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.

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Backdoor Slider
7 years ago

Remember when Nick Markakis had 2 straight 20+ HR seasons early in his career, and wRC+ of 121 & 138, respectively? Then, somewhat inexplicably, turned into what he is today? I get the sense that this is what is happening to Heyward. Thank God for his defense, I guess?

7 years ago

Markakis at least could keep his average up high enough to be a slightly above average hitter even after he lost his power. Heyward is a mess this year