Okay, I Think Jason Heyward Has Really Figured Some Things Out (No, Seriously)
If I told you the Cubs could have a guy who slashed .250/.340/.400 and played Gold Glove defense, you’d probably be okay with that. Those aren’t stellar numbers, but they’re pretty much league average for a right fielder, and that’s a position traditionally thought of as being heavy on the offense.
Jason Heyward has gotten his fair share of grief, much of it from yours truly, but what if he really does start putting it back together at the plate? And I don’t just mean league average, which would be enough to justify a regular spot in the lineup, but a return to the same type of hitter we saw during his days in Atlanta and St. Louis. That, my friends, would be a big deal.
It’s probably also pie in the sky, as we’ve all heard the “Is J-Hey finally back?” questions answered with a definitive “No!” time and again. The swing changes and hot streaks have been cause for hope, but each time we arrive back at the conclusion that the dude simply is who he is. And by that I mean a mediocre-at-best hitter who will soon enough return to beating balls into the ground at the second baseman.
But what if Heyward really has figured something out? What if new hitting coach Chili Davis has gotten him to that comfort level he’s never been able to find with the Cubs? Perhaps it’s just a matter of the recent results coloring my opinion, but Heyward certainly looks more comfortable at the plate since returning from the concussion DL on May 18.
We’re only talking about 32 plate appearances — at least one of which I still feel was very ill-advised — so salt this accordingly, but Heyward has been something of a revelation here of late. He’s slashing .357/.406/.536 with a .396 wOBA and 151 wRC+, including going 6-for-9 in the final two games in Pittsburgh. Of course, it also included a bases-clearing bloop triple that inflated his line a little more than it deserved to.
Heyward’s batted-ball profile offers reason for ample encouragement, though, and I don’t just mean over the last few games. He’s generating hard contact 34.4 percent of the time, his highest mark since he had 38.8 percent as a rookie. And his 21.7 percent soft contact is the lowest it’s been since 2012 (16.7).
While his hard-hit balls have dropped a couple ticks during this recent stretch, the soft contact is down to 10.7 percent. His groundball percentage of 46.4 is right around his career mark of 48.8, but he’s pulling the ball an absurd 60.7 percent of the time. It’s evident from just watching that Heyward is pouncing on fastballs, and the numbers bear out the eye test.
He’s posting a career-best .333 average against fastballs this season and his .913 OPS against heaters is the second-highest of his career (.960 in 2013). Those respective average and OPS marks are 53 and 144 points higher than in 2017, indicating more than just a series of flukes. His .357 BABIP during the recent hot streak in question may say otherwise, but his overall .275 mark tells us that he’s actually been a little unlucky this season.
Delving further into the peripherals reveals even more evidence that Heyward’s improvements could well be legit. Statcast puts his hard-hit percentage at 42.2, more than 11 points higher than last year (30.9) and well above his 36.3 percent in 2015 (when Statcast began measuring such things). His 89.2 mph exit velo is almost identical to 2015 and is 2.8 mph faster than last season.
Just that small increase in velocity translates to roughly 10-12 points in average and 15-20 of wOBA, based on Statcast’s historical hit probability data. Heyward is elevating more as well, boasting a 15.9 degree launch angle that is at least five degrees higher than in any of the three previous seasons. And though the results from the latter increase are negligible in terms the impact on production, it’s important to note that these things only work in concert.
If there’s one thing we’ve all learned from Mike Bryant, it’s that you’ve got to hit it hard and hit it in the air. All the exit velocity in the world means little if you just beat the ball into the ground. Likewise, a “perfect” launch angle will turn into outs all day if the ball isn’t hit hard enough. Wouldn’t you know it, Statcast has a metric for that as well.
Heyward is barreling the ball up at a 4.6 percent clip, which is not among the top 150 hitters in MLB but is still about half a tick better than last year. All told, Heyward’s combined improvements would normally result in a .280 average, .475 slugging, and .360 wOBA. Hey, that’s pretty much right between his actual season stats and what we’ve seen over the last 10 games.
Of course, this is all hypothetical and there’s a good deal of inherent danger in trying to predict future performance based on past results, let alone alone x-stats. But there’s no denying that the underlying numbers offer a great deal of support to the idea that Heyward has actually figured something out. Or, you know, maybe this is all a product of small samples and the bottom will fall out again any day now.