I will not placate you with excuses explaining why Jason Heyward was, well, terrible at the plate last season.
But to suggest there weren’t numerous, measurable reasons for his struggles – including the type of reasons that might indicate a potential bounce back – would be a disservice. It would be an incomplete picture of his season.
Take, for example, the hitter contact-quality report created by FanGraphs Tony Blengino. Among other right fielders, you find some really interesting information about Heyward’s year. Blengino determined that while, yes, Heyward was really bad last season (and several peripheral statistics support that assertion), there were at least some examples of chronic, season-long unluckiness. Sometimes, it can be both bad performance and bad luck.
Or to put it differently: there is some evidence to suggest that Heyward’s results in 2017 would likely be better than they were in 2016 even if nothing about his approach or effort changed.
Blengino has been taking a look at the contact quality of players at various positions in the Majors. Based on the exit velocity and launch angle of each ball a batter puts in play, Blengino created an “Adjusted Production” score, which indicates what a player “should have” produced (with 100 as the league average). You can check out his work at here for the full chart, but we’ll be taking a look at Heyward’s various numbers below.
Next to each category, I’ve listed some of Heyward’s 2016 numbers (with the 2016 league averages in parenthesis) from Blengino’s study:
AVG MPH: 87.4 MPH (90.2 MPH)
FLY MPH: 85.0 MPH (90.4 MPH)
LD MPH: 90.6 MPH (94.2 MPH)
GB MPH: 89.0 MPH (88.5 MPH)
Pop%: 4.8% (3.4%)
Fly%: 28.5% (32.9%)
LD%: 20.5% (19.8%)
GB%: 46.2% (43.8%)
K-rate: 15.7% (21.1%)
BB-rate: 9.1% (8.4%)
Examining the table in short, we find that Heyward’s overall exit velocity is well below average. Although his exit velocity on ground balls is slightly higher than average, his exit velocities for line drives and fly balls are well below average (fly balls are more than a standard deviation below average, in fact, which helps explain the distinct lack of power).
In addition, Heyward popped up and grounded out way too often. He did hit plenty of line drives, but without sufficient exit velocities, he’s just not capable of grabbing extra bases often enough.
Before we go further, Blengino uses a mid-way statistic, Adjusted Contact (ADJ C), to identify expected production without the influence of strikeouts or walks (so, it’s contact only). By this measure, Heyward’s 77 ADJ C is slightly better than his 72 wRC+ in 2016, but it’s still a mixed bag, at best. The implication is that Heyward should have had better luck, based on how he made contact. But the majority of the bad production on batted balls was earned. (You’ll note that this squares with our research on Heyward’s xBABIP in 2016 – he definitely had bad luck, but was also not hitting the ball well enough.)
But, as we know (and can see above), Heyward walks a bit more than the average player and strikes out a whole let less, even in what is easily his worst season offensively. And with those two stats now included, we can get to Heyward’s Adjusted Production:
Heyward in 2016: 88 Adj. PRD
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. When you consider all of his batted ball data, as well as his walks and strikeouts, Jason Heyward should probably have only been about 12% worse than league average in 2016. Instead, his results (72 wRC+) were actually a massive 28% worse than league average – the fourth worst among all qualified hitters in 2016.
So in short, yes, Heyward was both bad and below average offensively in 2016, but maybe he shouldn’t have been quite as bad as he was.
For what it’s worth, Blengino believes that Heyward can still rebound: “This is a big strong guy who put up MLB numbers at a young age, so this is all about swing and body mechanics; the strength and athleticism are there.” He later added that his K/BB foundation makes his offensive game somewhat tolerable (in a lineup as solid as the Cubs) and all of that is to go without mentioning his enormous contributions on defense, on the bases, and in the clubhouse.
At his age, with his previous success, body frame, adjusted production, and the work he’s put in this offseason, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a wonderful bounce back in the results department from Jason Heyward in 2017.