While the Cubs ended their first half in a tailspin, it appears as if outfielder Jason Heyward has started to put it together at the plate. [Brett: Appropriately and in delightful contrast to his lead sentence, Luis wrote this post before the first half finale, which the Cubs won, but in which Heyward went 0-5. All stats are prior to that game. Given that Heyward scalded the ball in Sunday’s game but didn’t get any BABIP love, I still think everything Luis wrote is perfectly lovely for today.]
No, that won’t help a starter go six or seven innings. Nor will it help relievers convert outs in late-game, high-leverage spots. But Heyward’s offensive contributions, which had been scattered sparsely throughout the first half, could be very valuable moving forward.
Things have really ticked up of late. In his first six games since moving down to the sixth spot in the order, Heyward was 10-for-23 with three extra-base hits, four walks and no strikeouts.
It’s a one-week sample, but Heyward himself indicated there are reasons for his improved production since the move down the order, as he’s adjusted his approach in a variety of ways in response (Cubs.com). Furthermore, that one week sample happens to be only the latest positive sign in Heyward’s progression into a formidable offensive piece in the line up. The positive trend has been much longer.
Heyward put together a .310/.396/.429 slash line to go along with a .361 wOBA and 125 wRC+ in his last 48 plate appearances leading into Sunday’s series finale against the Pirates. If you go back 122 plate appearances, the numbers are still positive: .284/.361/.394 with a 9.0 percent walk rate and 12.3 percent strikeout rate.
Heyward’s progression in his first first half with the Cubs is an interesting one to follow.
Below is a look at his progression in intervals this year of (nearly) 100 plate appearances:
|4/4-4-29 (99 PA)||.224||.333||.271||.281||72||13.1||19.2|
|5/1-6/1 (98 PA)||.221||.309||.302||.277||68||11.2||21.4|
|6/2-6/27 (101 PA)||.264||.337||.407||.326||101||6.9||16.8|
|6/28-7/9 (48 PA)||.310||.396||.429||.361||125||12.5||8.3|
And here is a look at his batted ball rates over the same span:
Heyward’s frigid start (.224/.333/.271 with a .281 wOBA, 71 wRC+) was driven by a high soft-contact rate (27.3%), a low hard-hit rate (16.7%), and an abnormal amount of infield fly balls (20.0%). Entering the season, there was concern about Heyward’s groundball rate, but the most frustrating aspect of his early season struggles wasn’t tied to that. Instead, it was the amount of infield fly balls per fly ball hit that has really stood out this season – and has done so since April. His career IFFB% is 12.9. Yet, his offensive production wasn’t a total loss, as he posted a 13.1 percent walk rate that helped put him on base 33 percent of the time despite a .224 batting average.
MAY 1-JUNE 1
Heyward put together a second stretch with a walk rate above 10 percent, but his strikeout rate crossed over to the wrong side of the 20 percent mark in the process. Complicating matters were increases in ground ball rate (by 9.9 percentage points), infield fly ball rate (9.4 percentage points) and soft-hit percentage (7.6 percentage points). Good fortune wasn’t on Heyward’s side either as he posted a .281 BABIP en route to a 68 wRC+ during this stretch.
All things considered, his second month’s worth of plate appearances was a bit of a step back after what was an already awful April. But things would start to turn for Heyward in June.
There are notable increases across the board during this stretch. Heyward saw progressive jumps in BABIP (up to .296) and hard-hit rate (up to 29.7%), while seeing dips in his strikeout rate (down to 16.8%) and soft-hit rate (down to 24.3%). While his ground ball percentage still sat around 50 percent, Heyward saw a drastic drop in percentage of infield fly balls hit to 5.3 percent. Prior to June 2, Heyward’s IFFB% was a 24.3 percent – or nearly double his career average.
It all added up to Heyward posting a wRC+ above 100 for an extended period for the first time all season, while also getting his wOBA over .300 and ISO to cross the threshold of .100. On the downside, it was Heyward’s first extended run with a walk rate that was below 10 percent.
Heyward isn’t going to carry a .342 BABIP for the rest of the season, but he was long overdue for a market correction in that area. For what it’s worth, he seems to be settling around his career norm (.308) as he entered Sunday with a .297 BABIP. The same could be said for his infield fly ball rate, which is still 4.9 percentage points higher than his career norm and would be his highest in that category since the 2013 season where it was 16.7 percent.
If Heyward can maintain his walk and strikeout rates (which haven’t deviated too far from his career norms) while also bringing his batting rates closer to his career numbers, it would be a welcome addition to a Cubs’ lineup that could be come that much deeper.