Can Cubs Afford to Let Jason Heyward Work Through New Struggles?

Jason Heyward has gone through extended periods of slumps as a Chicago Cub, but his latest one is completely different.

In the past, the scouting report on Heyward was “throw him as many fastballs as possible.” There was a point when the right fielder was among the worst in MLB against four-seamers, especially those thrown up in the zone. But Heyward eventually adjusted thanks to his legendary work ethic, a trait that makes him beloved by teammates, and fastballs are no longer an issue.

Although he has a 61 wRC+ and .255 wOBA in 2021, he has actually produced more runs against fastballs than your average MLB hitter (wFA/C: 0.52; wFA: 1.1). So if Heyward is still hitting fastballs, why is his 2021 offense among the worst in MLB?

The answer relates to sliders, against which Heyward has a gross -5.0 wSL and wSL/C -4.21 (the /C just means scaled, sort of like wRC+). Consider that only one hitter in MLB ranks worse in slider run value (Christian Vasquez: -4.9 wSL/C). This is bad, folks.

And the league knows Heyward’s struggles against sliders are a massive problem. Pitchers have been hammering him with sliders significantly more in 2021 than in any previous season. So far this year, Heyward has seen a slider nearly once every four pitches, a rate ~40% more than in prior seasons).

Season FB% SL%
2016 65.2% (92.5) 11.7% (84.4)
2017 61.4% (93.5) 13.4% (84.4)
2018 55.6% (93.5) 16.8% (84.7)
2019 53.4% (93.5) 14.8% (85.2)
2020 55.5% (92.4) 16.1% (83.7)
2021 48.4% (94.1) 22.7% (84.6)

Coupled with his concerning offensive trends is a decline in defensive value. Small sample size be damned,  Heyward’s 0 outs above average (OAA) ranks worse than 65% of outfielders. Despite a bad offensive year in 2016, Heyward was still recognized as the best defensive right fielder in MLB.

Bad offense, below-average defense, and age all contribute to an uncomfortable discussion: Can this contending Cubs team afford to give Heyward a chance to adjust to sliders? What is the probability he can do so before the July 31 trade deadline? They have to answer that question either in terms of adding a player or shifting around playing time on the existing roster.

Time is ticking.

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