Although Jason Heyward didn’t quite top his recent walk-off grand slam (how could he?), he had yet another multi-hit game against the Brewers last night, featuring one crucial, run-scoring hit late in the ball game, and it was a notable one at that. It was maybe even more unlikely than the grand slam.
Let me set the stage: with the Brewers up a run and just three innings to go, Craig Counsell turned the game over to his bullpen, which has been, by far, the best in the National League, and arguably the best in baseball this season. But not only that, he handed the ball to Josh Hader, who’s quite clearly been the best reliever in baseball (1.9 WAR, 1st in MLB). Naturally, Hader made quick work of the Cubs in the 7th, and went back out there for another inning against the Cubs in the 8th. It’s what he does, and the Brewers had never lost this season when he pitched. Literally.
Until last night.
Ben Zobrist led off the inning with a walk, before advancing to second base on Albert Almora’s fly out (he was lucky, but it worked). That situation probably would’ve had the Cubs feeling good, if it weren’t for the nightmare matchup that was about to be. With a runner on second and the Cubs down a run, the left-handed hitting Jason Heyward (and his .207 wOBA against left-handed pitchers) stepped up to the plate against the left-handed throwing Josh Hader (and his .130 wOBA against left-handed hitters). Yes, Heyward had looked great lately and just had a big knock against a lefty a few nights earlier, but Hader is the best in the biz against lefties and Heyward, well, come on, we all know how we felt about him a month ago.
Needless to say: Advantage Brewers.
Heyward Aid. pic.twitter.com/nMWSIfUJnw
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) June 12, 2018
Heyward rocks a 107 MPH line drive to right field that scores Zobrist (thanks to Ryan Braun cutting off a throw he probably shouldn’t have (Zobrist gets lucky again)) for his second hit of the game. That tied the game at two, and after a Kris Bryant fly out and Anthony Rizzo walk, the Cubs had officially chased Hader from the game at 35 pitches. Win-win.
Of course, Heyward wasn’t done for the night. After striking out in the 10th, he laced a 104 MPH double to deep left, scoring two runs, and getting himself to third on a throwing error in the 11th. And guess what! That one came against a lefty, too! In the matter of one night, Heyward more than doubled his offensive production off southpaws (from 24 wRC+ to 51 wRC+) and he’s now recorded four hits (including a double and a homer) in his last ten plate appearances against left-handers. That’s huge. But those aren’t his only improvements lately.
If you remember (of course you do, as I bring it up every chance I get), I wrote about the significant improvements in Jason Heyward’s peripherals back on May 29, but warned that, because of his recent history and tendency to create some weird contact on fly balls and wasted hard contact on grounders, we’d have to proceed cautiously before getting too excited. In fact, what I said is he’ll have to prove it before we give him any credit at all.
Well, since that day, Heyward has started in twelve games for the Cubs, recording hits in all but two of them. In more than half of those starts (7), he has multi-hit games, and has knocked around six doubles and a homer to boot.
Here’s his slash line over those 55 plate appearances: .407/.418/.574 (171 wRC+). That comes along with a razor-thin 9.1% strikeout rate and .167 ISO, both of which are just swell. As you can tell, Heyward’s not really walking during this stretch, but I’m not sure we need to worry about that when he’s clearly seeing the ball so well and making good contact.
And since he wasn’t doing terribly before this stretch, Heyward’s season slash line is up to .281/.339/.421 (106 wRC+). Which, for a little context:
Good morning to everyone, especially Jason Heyward, who is currently hitting .281/.339/.421 with a 106 wRC+. That's 6% better than league average. pic.twitter.com/u0sa7ghtb9
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) June 12, 2018
Jason Heyward has a 106 wRC+ right now. The last time he had something similar (109 wRC+, 2014) he was worth 4.7 WAR.
That’s more than 2X what he was worth with the Cubs in 2016 and 2017 combined.
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) June 12, 2018
The obvious question at this point is how do his peripherals look now – and the answer is still “good.” As we discussed, he’s walking a little less than he was, but he’s also striking out a lot less and is having no problem seeing the ball, so that’s not really a concern. And, perhaps more importantly, although he’s hitting a few more grounders lately, the quality and type of his contact overall is still strong.
In 2016, his first season with the Cubs, Heyward’s soft contact rate was 27.0%, last season it was 25.7%, and this year it’s all the way down to 20.3% – his best mark since his 27-homer season in 2012, and well below his career average (23.0%). Similarly, his hard contact rate with the Cubs in 2016 was 26.4%. Last season it was 25.5%. This year … 32.7%. That is once again his best mark since his monster 2012 season, and well above his career average (29.9%).
And that’s just one way of measuring it (FanGraphs). Even at Statcast, where they measure hard-contact in a different way*, the improvements are both obvious and wonderful:
Jason Heyward's hard hit % by season:
2018 42.6% 🔥
— Daren Willman (@darenw) June 12, 2018
And the cherry on top of this sundae is that the groundball rate that hampered his production with the Cubs and limited his power throughout his career is at an all-time low of 40.1%. Before this season, that number sat at an unthinkable (in the current era) 49.1%.**
He’s simply a different hitter right now, and it’s been pretty remarkable to watch.
**I’d like to point out that during these past two weeks (i.e. since the first Heyward/peripheral post, Heyward’s groundball rate is actually a bit higher (44.9%) and his hard-hit rate is actually a bit lower (28.6%), but both marks still represent improvements over his time with the Cubs and his entire career, so the points remain. Moreover, his 14.3% soft-hit rate is even better than everything above, so there’s plenty of reason to still be encouraged.