Pick the Better 2017 Hitter

Imagine how Jason Heyward would feel if the Cubs didn’t win the World Series. On one side of the coin, any non-championship season falls short because of countless different reasons, and on the other side of the coin, Heyward still has to care the most about his own performance. But for as bad as he was, at least the title took the edge off. He remained an outstanding defender. And the team around him literally won everything you could win. Bad, though. Jason Heyward’s hitting was bad. Maybe worse than you thought. Maybe exactly as bad as you thought.

Here are three numbers:

  • BA: .255
  • OBP: .306
  • SLG: .336

Pretty bad performance from Jason Heyward, you’d say. You’d be right! But you’d also be wrong, because those three numbers were posted by Jose Iglesias. Heyward’s hitting was even worse. He wasn’t supposed to become an outfield version of the no-hit shortstoppy whiz.

By wRC+, Heyward finished in an Iglesias and Alcides Escobar sandwich. Heyward wound up at 72, where the year before he’d finished at 120. Since making his debut, Heyward’s career wRC+ had been 118. He turned just 27 years old in August. Heyward didn’t have the biggest offensive collapse of all time — by some measurements, that’s Bryce Harper! — but it was huge, and it felt like it came almost out of nowhere.

Heyward finished with a sub-.100 ISO. That’s Alexei Ramirez territory. He also led all qualified hitters in soft-hit rate, beating out Iglesias and Jonathan Schoop. For the first time as a big-leaguer, Heyward was a below-average hitter against fastballs, so, not coincidentally, he saw what was easily a career-high rate of fastballs. Heyward wound up slow to get around, and we all saw the results. I’ve also just now detailed them, to serve as a reminder.

Okay! So, I’m sure I don’t need to say more about what’s already happened. What I’m interested in instead is what you think is going to happen, in the season ahead. We’re all familiar with the concept of regression to the mean, and I presume we all have some understanding of how it works. Now, very clearly, Heyward is a positive regression candidate. At the same time, Heyward is a guy Cubs fans watched on a near-daily basis. Signs of life were few and far between. Regression is an easy thing to believe in in general, mostly because it’s a real thing that exists, but it doesn’t end up applying to everyone. I’m curious to know whether people see Heyward as a good bounce-back candidate, or more of a lost cause.

Unsurprisingly, some work is already underway. Heyward was never going to accept what just happened without fighting back, so he’s set about trying to repair his swing. His target is the swing that he had in 2012, when he was a near-7-win player. That year he knocked a career-high 27 dingers. In theory, everything sounds great, and Heyward needed to change something. But then, Heyward has never been shy about changing his mechanics. He lost those old mechanics before, for whatever reason, and there’s no guarantee he can get all the way back. It’s just the thing he’s trying to do. It stands to reason he’ll look different come February, when action picks up.

Out of curiosity, I did do a little bit of research. Heyward is a guy who just lost 48 points of wRC+ in consecutive years as a guy still in his 20s. I went all the way back to 1900 and looked at guys who lost at least 40 points of wRC+ in consecutive years while in their 20s. I set minimums of 500 plate appearances in each season. On average, the players lost 48 wRC+ points. The next year, they re-gained an average of 17 points.

I then narrowed to guys who lost at least 40 points of wRC+, and were also below-average hitters. On average, the players lost 49 wRC+ points. The next year, they re-gained an average of 20 points.

Based on history, one shouldn’t expect Heyward to get all the way back. Darin Erstad, as one negative example, stopped hitting at 27, and that was that. As a positive example, consider Jason Kipnis, who didn’t hit at all at 27. He picked things up the next year like nothing happened, and Kipnis today is one of the better everyday infielders in the game. As is always the case, there are encouraging comps and discouraging comps, meaning we can’t know for sure where Heyward will settle.

But that doesn’t mean people don’t have guesses, and that doesn’t mean people don’t have feelings. Now, in this post, I’m not asking for a straight-up Jason Heyward projection. I wanted to make things a little more fun, so we’ll double up by also considering one of Heyward’s teammates. Heyward finished last year with a .282 wOBA. Addison Russell finished with a .316 wOBA. Heyward was a bad hitter. Russell was a fine hitter. Russell, also, turns just 23 in a few days.

So based on everything that people saw last season, Russell is much more dangerous at the dish. That being said, Steamer projects Heyward to be the better hitter in 2017, by a wOBA difference of 15 points. And ZiPS projects Heyward to be the better hitter in 2017, by a wOBA difference of five points. The numbers are different but the meanings are the same: Our projection tools don’t mind what just happened so much. Projection systems know all about Russell’s age, but they also know about his skillset, and about what Heyward has done. The projection systems themselves didn’t watch these players last year, not in the way that you might’ve. The systems are guessing, based on history. You might believe that, in these cases, history is misleading.

We’ve finally gotten all the way to the end. We know what Heyward was, and we know what Russell was. We don’t know what they’ll be, but we’ve all got our inklings. I have but one question to ask of you, and in order to gather additional information, I want you to select a poll based on how you identify as a fan. I’d like for Cubs fans to keep to one poll, while non-Cubs fans keep to the other. The instructions are simple! Which player do you think will hit better this coming season? Do you believe what the projections say, or do you think you just saw too much?

I’m interested in how this is going to go. Thank you, as always, for your assistance.

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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7 years ago

Ill take Mike Trout

7 years ago
Reply to  Oliver