What Should We Make of Jason Heyward’s Deal With the Dodgers?

Jason Heyward
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, news broke that Jason Heyward had signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers. I’m not going to lie: there are very few teams who could have signed Heyward that would have compelled me to spend multiple hours doing research and writing about the former Cubs outfielder. Back in the day when he was floating in the free-agent market, I was excited about where he would land. His profile as a hitter has always compelled me: very good plate discipline, great athleticism, and, more interestingly, wiggly limbs.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used that saying before, but when I see Heyward, that’s what comes to mind. His arms and legs are always dancing in the box, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. In fact, he uses these movements to keep his body loose; energy can’t travel as smoothly through one’s body if there is tension in the way. Heyward has done this his entire life. It’s what made him special when he was one of the best high school players of all time, an incredibly productive minor leaguer, and a well-above-average hitter in Atlanta and briefly St. Louis. His success isn’t about removing these movements; rather, it’s about harnessing them.

Heyward’s run in Chicago didn’t bring out the best version of his swing. He was never expected to be an off-the-charts hitter, but his interest in the free-agent market at the time had much to do with his potential to harness the power and bat speed he had and turn that into more home runs. But for some reason, things instead went in the other direction, resulting in four below-average seasons by wRC+, two seasons of an exactly 100 wRC+, and an impressive run in the shortened 2020 season of a 131 wRC+ in 181 plate appearances. Yes, it was only a third of a full season, but Heyward flashed what seemed to be a concrete plate discipline improvement to go along with a swing that had been improved enough to do more damage on contact.

Sometimes, it’s hard to determine if a plate discipline change is legit or not. Is the hitter taking more just to take more? Are they being more selective with attacking pitches that they know their swing path is well suited to barrel? Perhaps a combination of both? In 2020, Heyward swung significantly less. He was on a three-year run of around a 45% swing rate but dropped it down to 37% that year. The change was consistent across pitch groups, too, ranging from an 8.7-point decrease against fastballs to a 10.2-point decrease against offspeed pitches. That type of change seems conscious, and it worked very well! He paired a career-high walk rate with a Statcast-era high (since 2015) in xwOBACON. Not only did he walk more than 96% of the league, but his expected outcomes on contact were also at least 60 points higher than any season he played in a Cubs uniform and his one-year stint in St. Louis.

Typically, when I assess hitter breakouts, I’m looking for three things: a plate discipline improvement, a swing improvement, and a batted ball improvement. So far, 2020 checks two of those boxes. The last piece for Heyward was getting his swing back to where it had been earlier in his career. Here’s a little refresher of what that looked like:

Watching this back, I’m reminded of how Heyward used to swing; he still had the wiggly twitch but also a high hand preset. His swing in recent years, though, has more hitches and a lower hand preset. The position and timing of his downswing has progressively moved south over the years, but in 2020, it seemed like he made a slight adjustment toward a higher hand preset and an open stance. Look at these two swings on home runs, both hit over 105 mph:

A few things to note about these swings. First, he is starting very wide open and striding closed, allowing him to pull the slider on the outer third to the right-field gap and the inside fastball down the line. This is an impressive skill that allows hitters with his physical composition to produce pull-side power with extended arms while catching outside pitches far out in front of the plate. Specifically, it lets hitters cover outside breaking balls; their swing path can still elevate these pitches to the gaps. It’s a nice supporting skill that not all players have.

Unfortunately, Heyward seems to have misplaced this skill for the last two years and has gotten into the habit of hitting these pitches on the ground, albeit still with decent exit velocities. Check out this swing from June of this year against Yu Darvish:

This was hit at 101.8 mph off the bat, but it didn’t matter, because Heyward’s contact came too long after he turned the barrel over, resulting in a top-spun downward trajectory. Contrast that to 2020, when he showed the ability to create enough barrel depth to be on the upswing when contacting pitches in this general area of the zone. It’s possible his more abbreviated stride and direction of hand loading played into this; it’s tough to say for sure since he has been constantly tweaking his mechanics for the last five or so years. He definitely has a decent idea of what works for him and what doesn’t, making it hard to say for sure what the click is or will be.

I’m interested to see what the Dodgers’ hitting team will advise Heyward to do. We have very recent evidence of their ability to help players with above-average bat speed; Trayce Thompson comes to mind. If I were to guess what the advice might be, I’d assume it would be cleaning up his hand load. There is some hitchy movement in Heyward’s hands, and I think it makes his swing too hand- or wrist-dominant. Many hitting coaches will tell you the hands should be along for the ride, not driving the car.

That doesn’t mean Heyward shouldn’t move his hands at all; his twitch makes him unique. But what he can do is better harness these movements. Could a return to a higher hand preset like earlier in his career help? There is already previous evidence of it. I imagine the Dodgers would also want him to make better use of the long, athletic levers in his legs. His stride in 2020 allowed him to create more space for his barrel to move through the zone at an ideal attack angle. That trait needs to be reclaimed for him to improve his batted ball profile.

This is all speculation obviously, but with a reclamation project like this, I think Los Angeles has a specific set of recommendations in mind to help Heyward get back to the best the version of himself. So why not provide some ideas that he already has proven success with? Hitters like him have probably tried everything to recover their bat; sometimes it’s as simple as a reminder of what they were doing when they were thriving and putting them in a better position to do so. I know I’m dancing around making a concrete conclusion here, but it’s a confusing problem that nobody has solved. But I’m excited for Heyward as a Dodger; he’s an incredibly gifted player who is wonderful to watch, and I hope he has some life left in those wiggly limbs.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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1 year ago

Dodgers needed a strong defensive OF who cannot hit to replace Bellinger and got one for league minimum. Compare to the Cubbies who are still paying Heyward $22 million plus $17 million to Bellinger to fill that role.