Jason Heyward and his new (old) swing will lead off again for the Cubs today, as he looks for his first hit on the spring.
For his part, Heyward says he’s feeling more and more comfortable, likes his plate approach, and he’s not necessarily focused on getting hits right now (Tribune).
Instead, right now is about putting in the work. Everyone knows that Heyward has been working on his swing changes since, well, just after the 2016 World Series ended back in November. In fact, Cubs President Theo Epstein recently mentioned that he’s never seen a veteran work quite as hard as Heyward has. Which, sweet.
A couple things to peruse today in advance of today’s game: At Fox Sports, Ken Rosenthal goes “inside the complete overhaul” of Jason Heyward’s swing, and at FanGraphs, Craig Edwards compares Heyward’s 2016 season to similar bouts throughout history to see what we can learn and/or expect going forward.
And after reading both, I think you’ll find that Heyward stands a chance at coming back strong next season, even if it’ll be an uphill climb.
“Drill after drill, day after day, week after week,” Rosenthal writes, “Heyward worked to undo all of his old habits and establish muscle memory with his new.” According to Cubs hitting coach John Mallee, Heyward’s swing looks better now than it ever has. More specifically, his hands are lower and closer to this body, his bat is more vertical, he’s shorter to the ball, and the follow through is stronger.
Additionally, he’s more balanced. “I’m able to get more good swings off because I’m at the right spot at the right time,” Heyward said. I take that to mean that he’s transferring his weight better, and isn’t flying open too early in his swing, as he was so often last year.
You should head over to Fox Sports to get the direct quotes from John Mallee (and many others), because he explains in great detail what they’ve been working on over the Spring. The process, it seems, was a long, painstaking one, but one that figures to pay off. There’s plenty more from Rosenthal.
But let’s be honest, Heyward isn’t the first player whose swing has shown up “in the best shape of its life,” to modify a frequent spring phrase. Is there any statistical/empirical evidence of players bouncing back the way we’re hoping Heyward will? Enter Craig Edwards.
At FanGraphs, Craig Edwards writes that in the last 100 years, there’ve been 4,578 outfielders who had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title (Heyward’s 2016 being one of them). And among all of those individual seasons, Heyward’s 2016 ranked 67th … worst. Indeed, his 72 wRC+ last year for the Cubs was the 4,511th worst season from a qualified Major League outfielder. Yikes.
Those numbers indicate that Heyward’s season was actually pretty rare, but Edwards wanted to know exactly how rare and what that might mean. So he looked.
After filtering out some non-essential and misleading variables (strike-shortened seasons, players with less than a year of experience, etc.) Edwards came up with five guys that went through what Heyward did last season between the ages of 25 and 29 (he was really trying to keep it as similar as possible).
- Darin Erstad (1999)
- Willie Davis (1965)
- Omar Moreno (1980)
- Bill Virdon (1957)
- Brian Hunter (1998)
Of those six players (those five plus Heyward), Heyward’s 2016 1.6 WAR ranked third overall. But, more discouragingly (or perhaps, disappointingly) Heyward’s 43-point wRC+ drop from the two years before his 2016 season was second worst only to Darin Erstad (45-point wRC+ drop).
So, yes, there have been some other players to struggle like Heyward and at least one suffered an even bigger decline in performance … but what happened the next year is the million dollar question, right?
Well, of those five players, four bounced back offensively the year after the decline, with Brian Hunter being the only one who actually got even worse. And of those five changes (including Hunter) the average improvement was a wRC+ bump of about 22 points … which, hey.
Let’s make one thing very clear, if Jason Heyward regains 22 of his wRC+ points in 2016 – meaning he’d finish with a 94 wRC+ on the season – that would be a HUGE boost for the Chicago Cubs. In fact, with his glove, that is probably a 3-4 win player. (Obviously you’d hope for an even more substantial bounce from a guy who, until last year, was more like a 115 wRC+ guy.)
You’ll have to head over to Edward’s piece at FanGraphs to see what those players did on average for the three years following their down year, because I don’t want to spoil it all. I’m guessing if you’ve made it this far, you’re going to want to check it out.
So that’s the update for now. Heyward’s been working hard, the coaches and front office believe in a bounce back, and the historical data suggest that, although his fall in 2016 was rare, there have been similar cases, and most bounce back in a big way.
Let’s see if Heyward can join those ranks. It all starts today!
… just kidding. Today is just one Spring Training game. But if Heyward pops a couple deep ones, that would be fine.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.