Last season, the Chicago Cubs’ offense was the fourth most productive group in baseball, and arguably the best in the National League – they plated just two fewer runs than the NL-leading Colorado Rockies, who have the benefit of playing at Coors Field, and were second only to the NL-leading Dodgers in terms of wRC+.
And yet, it sure feels like they have a chance to take a huge step forward offensively this year, doesn’t it? Yes it does. That was rhetorical, and the answer is “Yes.”
But perhaps no two players represent that hope more than Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward.
The former may have taken a huge step forward in the second half of the 2017 season, but he provided just a slightly-better-than-league-average bat throughout the course of the year (102 wRC+). And the latter may have made huge strides in 2017 compared to his 2016 season, but he was still a well-below-average bat overall.
But with some functional changes, some continued development, and some good bounces, both Schwarber and Heyward could transform the entire look of the Cubs lineup in 2018.
Here in Spring Training, that all starts with their brand new hitting coach, Chili Davis, who is regarded as one of the best in the business – so good that it sounds like the Cubs making a change at the spot had more to do with Davis surprisingly becoming available than anything the Cubs didn’t like about former hitting coach, John Mallee.
And, so far, the move to pick up Davis, as it relates to two of the big “projects” on his plate, seems to be paying off.
In an article by Carrie Muskat (Cubs.com), Davis recalls his early playing career and a trajectory that might sound familiar. According to Muskat, Davis broke onto the scene in his debut season with the Giants in 1982, hitting .261/.308/.410 (102 wRC+) at age 22, and creating lofty expectations heading into his sophomore year. Unfortunately, in his second season, Davis hit just .233/.305/.352 (83 wRC+), in what would prove to be the worst offensive season of his career.
During that season, Davis was sent to AAA at the end of June, and he tells Muskat: “I needed to go out there and become myself again because I was trying to become something in the big leagues that I wasn’t.” Sound familiar?
That’s almost exactly the path Schwarber has taken so far, and let’s hope their stories continue to collide. “My third year, I came back and I just did the things that I did well and I ended up making an All-Star team and my career took off.” Sure enough, Davis hit .315/.368/.507 (148 wRC+) in that third season.
Schwarber spoke with Davis about his story and found even more similarities, like, for example, the fact that Davis was also brought up as a catcher and only reluctantly made the switch to the outfield as he became an everyday player in the Major Leagues – it’s almost humorously consistent with Schwarber’s experience. And that sort of credibility is already paying off: “The guy has a really great understanding of the game and he gets the hitters’ side of the game where he can just sit down and talk to you and go through what’s in your mindset,” Schwarber said. “I’m looking forward to working with him. I think it’ll be a great new voice.”
As of now, Schwarber’s projections are forecasting a 110 wRC+ and 31 homers for 2018, but his ceiling is much higher than that. Hopefully, as his relationship with Davis continues to strengthen, and Schwarber naturally continues along his developmental path, the two of them can really unleash Schwarber’s upside.
And then there’s Jason Heyward.
Heyward doesn’t need to contribute as much at the plate as Schwarber to be an extremely valuable player, but his journey and bounce back offensively might be even more difficult.
After enjoying a 118 wRC+ through the first six years of his career, Heyward’s first season with the Cubs was an utter disaster (71 wRC+). He made significant strides in season two (88 wRC+), but still came up more than 10% below league average. If he made the same jump again in 2018, however, finishing the year with something like a 105 wRC+ … at this point, that would be an enormous win for the Cubs (and Heyward!).
Consider that, in 2014, Heyward finished the season with a 109 wRC+ and was worth a total of 5.1 fWAR, because of his defense and base running. Even if he’s closer to a 100 wRC+ and his defense/base running takes a tiny step back, we’re still talking about a 3-4 WAR player which is hugely valuable.
But the question is … Can he actually get there?
Well, according to Heyward himself, he’s got extremely high expectations for the 2018 season, and, from the sounds of it, that’s not relative to his poor play over the past two years.
But more interestingly, at The Athletic, Patrick Mooney writes about his relationship with the new hitting coach, Davis, and how Davis is starting *completely* fresh with Heyward. The slate is being wiped-clean – not in terms of the memory of his results, but in terms of fixing whatever’s broken.
And while that’s all well and good, we’ve heard this song and dance before, right? Well, not quite. Unlike the mechanical changes to get more loft in his swing before the 2016 season or the mechanical changes to get him back to normal before the 2017 season, Davis is heading in an entirely different direction this year with the tall lefty.
According to Heyward, Davis has mostly steered their work together away from the mechanical side of the game. And it sounds like Heyward’s happy about it, telling Mooney: “Sometimes, you may not always need to talk about a mechanical thing. Sometimes, you just may need [to talk about a feel] and this gets you in the right mindset. And then things fall into place that way. Because at the end of the day, during the season, [for] 162 games, that’s what you need more than anything. You can work mechanics. You can work drills all you want to. But the mindset going into that drill is important. And the mindset going into each game and at-bat is a big thing.”
So, basically, when Spring Training games kick up soon, don’t look as obsessively for a new swing at the plate or more talk about how he just needs more lift. Instead, look for a more relaxed Heyward who’ll let mindset and approach take a crack at fixing the offensive issues. At this point, I’m just happy to be hearing something different.