For an awfully consistent hitter, Jason Heyward is considered an awfully frustrating hitter. Over the last four years, he hasn’t had a wRC+ under 110 or over 121, but there’s so clearly the potential for so much more than that too few people have come away satisfied. And it’s easy to identify the problem: Observers wish that Heyward would hit for more power. He clearly can — the man stands 6’5. He clobbered 27 homers when he was 22. He’s hit 24 homers the last two years combined. It doesn’t matter that Heyward has still been productive; he looks like he should be a beast of a hitter, so it’s odd to see him hit singles and doubles.
Let’s focus on Heyward and power for a minute, then. Forget about everything else. Throw caution to the wind, even. What follows is going to lean upon some spring-training data. One spring of spring-training data. The headline raises the red flag right off the bat — I’m probably making too much of too little. But just looking at how Heyward has hit the ball, there are early signs that he’s concentrating on pop. As can always be said when writing about a small sample: What we have here is something to monitor.
I’ve pulled some images from Baseball Savant. Heyward, as you know, is left-handed, and here is where he hit baseballs between 2014 – 2015:
I don’t know what, if anything, stands out right away. There’s a pretty good distribution of balls around the field. We’ve seen Heyward hit the ball out to right, and we’ve seen him hit the ball out to left. Anyhow, here’s where Heyward has hit baseballs in spring 2016:
Of course I’m wary of talking about anything based on so little data. That’s why I want to make sure you understand I’m not really concluding anything. But as far as I believe, batted-ball distributions aren’t as noisy as, say, BABIP. The way hitters hit the ball is a reflection of the swing and the approach, and so look at what you see above. The grounders are just about all pulled. There’s very little fly-ball action in left field. If Heyward had one or two games where he hit everything the other way, that would make this look way different, and that’s why it’s too early to say anything. But as long as we’re just having fun here, consider a few numbers.
Historically, Heyward has pulled just over half his grounders. That’s been fairly consistent. This spring, Heyward has hit 17 grounders, and he’s pulled all but one of them.
Historically, Heyward has hit about 30% of his flies and liners toward left. This spring, Heyward has hit 18 flies and liners, and he’s sent two of them toward left. Here’s a powerful triple to center. Here’s a bomb to right. Here’s a bomb to right-center. Those are just selective links, but they show Heyward with a right-center approach, and a good amount of batted-ball authority. Very obviously, he can sting a ball when he gets extended.
I’m sure you don’t think about ground-ball pull rate very often, but I like it as an indicator of change. Ground balls are a function of the swings, and consider Xander Bogaerts. Last year he hit for almost zero power, and his grounder pull rate went from 68% to 43%. It was a massive year-to-year swing, as Bogaerts concentrated on getting hits the other way. Matt Carpenter was the reverse. Carpenter upped his power output, and his grounder pull rate jumped from 53% to 68%. This is how it usually works with increases in pulled grounders: It’s a consequence of taking a more power-centric approach. Hitters think about driving the ball in the air up the middle or to the pull side, and then when the contact isn’t just right, a grounder gets yanked.
Heyward’s small sample of air balls also supports this. It’s not that he can’t hit the ball out to all fields, but his career-best homer rate is to the pull side. It’s where most hitters are strongest, and when Heyward had his powerful 2012, he hit just three of his homers the other way.
To bring this all back: There are very early signs that Jason Heyward is focusing more on the pull half of the field. If that’s something he’s really doing, it’s probably because he’s trying to up his power output. Now, Heyward has an extended history of making various adjustments — underneath, he hasn’t been that static. He’s forever been a work in progress, so maybe he’d change his focus on a whim. The games, as you well know, haven’t mattered yet. It’s not even clear this would be a good thing. Even if Heyward were to hit for more power, that might be offset by a drop in singles, or by an increase in strikeouts. Maybe Heyward just belongs in that 110 – 120 range of wRC+. Maybe he’d find a different path to a familiar destination.
But, man oh man, do people ever love to talk about Jason Heyward not hitting for enough power. It’s ever so early, but it seems like he could be working on that. How’s it going to go? Don’t look at me. Look at Jason Heyward. Keep looking at him, and also keep looking at his numbers, as the season begins and wears on. We’ll know what’s up by the beginning of May. And then we’ll see if he wants to stay on the same course. Players are always free to change their minds about anything.
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.