J-Hey, Holy Mackerel, No Doubt About It, This Cub Is On His Way…I Think
I’m not sure any other blog owes more of its views to Jason Heyward, relatively speaking, than this one. Cubs Insider was all over the first Instagram post of the right fielder’s new swing and we were — to the best of my knowledge — the first with live video of his swing training in the weeks prior to Spring Training. Then there was the clip of his first homer of the spring.
I tell you what, it’s hard than you think to type when one hand is busy tooting your own (collective, since this has been a team effort) horn. In truth, though, all that Heyward coverage was more a function of the general fascination with last year’s anemic offensive performance and his dogged attempt to ensure it was just an aberration. As much as many of us had talked up the big-ticket free agent’s meager production as gravy, a nice addition to his glove and the rest of the offense around him, that was a sunny-side-up rationalization.
Given Heyward’s frame (6-5, 240 lbs) and age (only 26 when the Cubs signed him), it was reasonable to expect at least a continuation of what had been an average of 4.6 fWAR per season in six years with the Braves and Cardinals. Instead, the Cubs got a measly 1.6 fWAR that was buoyed to even that level only by Heyward’s glove. His wRC+ of 72 was 24 points lower than his previous low for a season and his .282 wOBA was more than 55 points worse than his career average prior to 2016.
But there’s really no need to rehash all of that, no value in talking about the jacked-up swing that made it look as though Heyward was trying to wring the sap from the handle of his bat. What I would prefer to discuss is his average exit velocity of 87.4 mph, a mark that was lower than every Cubs hitter not named Miguel Montero (86.8). While Heyward would tattoo the occasional pitch, there was far too much bare horsehide, too many impotent worm-burners to second base.
Perhaps that’s why Sunday’s performance was such a heartening sign. Not only was Heyward hitting the ball to all parts of the field, but he was doing so with authority. Hell, the grounder he hit to second baseman Jonathan Villar was his hardest-hit ball of the game (101 mph). But to really appreciate Heyward’s afternoon, we need to look at his softest-hit ball, a 96 mph fly out in his last at-bat that would have left the yard had it not been to straightaway center.
Thing is, you thought it was going to go out, or at least that it might. And that’s, like, a big deal. There was a sense for the first time in his Cubs tenure that Heyward was really dialed in and that the BABIP gods had finally acquiesced to his ardent supplication. One game isn’t enough for us to issue a verdict on the newest iteration of a swing that has been in a perpetual state of change from the time he came into the league, but the early results are very encouraging.
After a ringing triple just to the right of center in his first at-bat, a ball that left his bat at 99 mph, Heyward’s 97 mph liner was snagged by Ryan Braun in left. Then came that ground-out, followed by a sharp single up the middle that was clocked at 100 mph, and the long fly. We could say that it was a matter of Heyward having a given pitcher’s number, but he did his damage against three different Brewers.
I don’t know, maybe it’s just that he was facing righties. Sure.
While it’s true that Heyward sat against the only lefty the Cubs have faced on the young season, it’s obvious that his overall plate approach is much improved. I don’t want to guess at anything, but I’d be willing to bet that the team’s mental skills program was a big factor in that improvement. And it doesn’t hurt to have that World Series in your back pocket.
Whatever the case, there’s reason to believe Heyward really has rediscovered at least some of what made him the most coveted signing of the pre-2016 offseason. If the Cubs were able to win the World Series with their right fielder serving as basically a designated glove, what could they do with him as a legitimate offensive threat?
Rather than answer that question hypothetically right now, I think I’ll just sit back and watch as it reveals itself over the next 150+ games.