Jason Heyward will hopefully be back in the lineup today after missing the entire Pirates series with a sore wrist. (A series that the Cubs still managed to sweep.)
That series aside, Heyward has largely gotten off to the start that most had come to expect for the early part of the season.
And by that, I mean his defense has been its usual gold glove caliber self, his baserunning has been off the charts, he continues to show an advanced baseball acumen, but his offensive production has been fairly underwhelming.
I say that many had come to expect that underwhelming offensive production not because Heyward is a bad offensive player (that wouldn’t be true). Instead, it’s because Heyward has long produced slightly less on offense than the scouts and projections seem to believe he’s capable of and all of that goes double for the first month of the season.
Consider, in every single season from 2013-2016, Jason Heyward has posted a sub-.300 wOBA in the first month of the season:
- 2013: .248 wOBA (16 games)
- 2014: .280 wOBA (25 games)
- 2015: .267 wOBA (21 games)
- 2016: .283 wOBA (21 games)
2016 has been no different, then, than the three previous seasons in which he’s hit finished with a collective and solid .339 wOBA (117 wRC+) overall. Indeed, his underlying performance in 2016 hasn’t really been all that bad. He’s hit far fewer grounders this year (45.7%) than last (57.2%), he isn’t really striking out all too often (19.2%), and he’s walking at an exceptional pace (12.5%). His hard hit rate is down a fair amount, but his medium hit rate is up from last season and he’s hitting far more line drives now (25.7%) than he has for his career (18.6%).
So, uh … what gives?
At FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan digs into Heyward’s slow start to the season and it’s a pretty fun, enlightening read.
Almost immediately, Sullivan acknowledges Heyward’s penchant for starting the season off slowly. A career 96 wRC+ hitter in April, Heyward is no stranger to the slow start. Indeed, he even brings up the depressed hard hit rate, vis á vis his former self, but even that doesn’t really describe or explain what Sullivan thinks is going on.
Indeed Sullivan noticed something in Heyward’s pitch mix (or, the types of pitches he is facing). In 2016, Jason Heyward is facing six percentage points more fastballs than he did in 2015. That may not seem like a huge change, but it is actually one of the largest differences in the league. It’s quite possible that opposing pitchers with some velocity have noticed a weakness in Heyward’s ability to catch up to some fastballs and are trying to exploit it.
But that’s not all. Sullivan has also found some interesting patterns with Heyward’s swing habits this season.
For his career, Jason Heyward has always displayed better production on pitches he’s seen low and slightly inside, while far, far less production on pitches up in the zone – in fact, you can call center-up Heyward’s cold spot (for more of a visual, check out the graphs in Sullivan’s piece). That, in and of itself, isn’t all too uncommon. Different players are more capable of handling pitches in certain locations and that translates to better production at the plate from those spots.
The interesting bit, however, is what has happened in 2016.
In 2016, Jason Heyward has been offering at pitches up in the zone (his cold spot) at a far more aggressive rate than he’s done in the past. According to Sullivan, Heyward used to swing at low pitches by seven percentage points more than high pitches. In 2016, he’s swinging at high pitches by 15 percentage points more than low pitches. That is a stark change. Part of that can be coincidental, part of it can be a small sample size, but part of it may actually be by design.
We know that the Cubs and Heyward have made a dedicated attempt at getting Heyward to elevate the ball more often than he has in the past (49.8% career GB rate), so that he could finally access and utilize the dormant power that lurks underneath his big frame. For his career, Heyward has had a .160 ISO, which isn’t bad by any means, but is certainly lower than he could be capable of achieving. Indeed, in 2015, his ISO was at just .146, and so far in 2016 it’s a minuscule .044.
But we know the plan is to increase that isolated power, and not just beyond what it’s at now, but what he’s shown he’s capable of in the past. Jason Heyward is an excellent, professional hitter, even if he’s never really been a slugger. Perhaps whatever changes that have been in place are just going to take time to really take hold, and the current numbers are merely an artifact of that process. (Plus, Heyward says he’s been dealing with the wrist issue since the second series of the year.)
Be sure to check out Jeff Sullivan’s piece at Fangraphs for a much more in depth analysis of Heyward’s struggles and adjustments at the plate. And remember to have patience, my friends, because Jason Heyward will impress you with his bat. It’s just a matter of time.