When Jason Heyward made the final out of an inning, stranding runners on second and third against the Dodgers on Tuesday, I thought to myself that if that had happened any other time before the last, oh say, month or so, we probably would’ve been extremely frustrated by the result and maybe even a little unnecessarily angry with Heyward. But today? Now? After what he’s been doing lately? Nah. We’re all good.
Sure, Kris Bryant picking up a couple of RBI just before that final out doesn’t hurt, but our chill with Heyward right now is certainly about a lot more than the individual game situation. Not only has Heyward been much better at the plate lately (thus deserving a bit more slack than he used to get), but even the way he’s making his outs are encouraging.
Take that play, for example. Instead of ending the inning with a weak groundout to second base like he’s done so many times before, Heyward gave the ball a ride (94 MPH) the opposite way and in the air. FINALLY, his weak groundouts to the pull side are turning into hard-hit fly balls the other way. That’s a good sign, that’s the Jason Heyward the Cubs signed up for, that’s part of the reason he’s succeeding overall, and that’s why we’re okay to let him off the hook.
In the eight plate appearance that followed that out (over the next two games), Heyward added a walk, two more singles, and a double, bringing his season-long slash line up to an above-average .269/.335/.415.
And lo and behold, that series put him over the top:
Jason Heyward has already been as valuable this season (1.0 WAR) as he was for all of 2017 or 2016 with the Cubs.
He's currently posting Cubs-Career bests in …
– strikeout rate
– Hard-hit rate
– Soft-hit rate
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) June 21, 2018
Indeed, Jason Heyward has slashed .342/.383/.513 (141 wRC+) since his big day on May 29th (the exact day we first noticed his improving peripherals) and .313/.356/.490 (125 wRC+) since coming off the disabled list with a concussion from trying to rob a homer in St. Louis last month. He has many more months of maintaining ahead of him, but there does seem to be a definitive change at hand.
At FanGraphs, Craig Edward’s writes that Heyward’s latest changes at the plate have been making a difference and even goes as far as saying it could be a long-lasting one that redefines the perception of his deal with the Cubs. You’ll have to check out his post for specifics, but Edwards uses multiple graphs to show the relationship between his zone%, out-of-zone swing-rate, and out-of-zone contact rate and his overall production.
And although this might just be a nice blip in an offensive career that’ll ultimately never recover, Edwards leaves the door open for much more than that: “It’s also possible that this new Heyward is the old Heyward, and by the end of next season, we are talking about him as a potential free agent. As disappointing as his last few seasons have been at the plate, Heyward still has the opportunity to be a great player once again.”
But that’s not the only place where we’ve seen some optimism.
While FanGraphs has you covered on the peripherals, Sports Illustrated discusses some of the changes Heyward made to his swing while on the disabled list earlier this year. According to Tom Verducci, Heyward used to lean towards the baseball as he began to swing, bringing his front foot down closer to the plate than his back foot, tilt his waist, drop his head, and move down toward the ball. But now, “with the help of hitting coach Chili Davis, Heyward tweaked his setup to promote a more balanced approach. By keeping his head back, reducing his spine tilt and putting his front foot down even with his back foot, Heyward keeps his center of balance over his core, which promotes a faster turn into the baseball. He is letting his hands work without so much extraneous movement of his head and body.”
The changes also help Heyward top drop his elbow into the “slow” position, closer to his body which effectively speeds up his swing. And the difference in the results from 2017 compared to his post 2018 DL stint are pretty wild.
For example, against all fastballs, Heyward’s new swing is producing a .371 batting average and .613 slugging percentage. Those figures stood at .287 and .436 last season. And against all especially hard fastballs (95 MPH+) Heyward’s average went from .250 to .409 and his slugging percentage went from .318 to .727. That’s just, like … jaw-dropping stuff. And, perhaps more importantly, shows a meaningful explanation for why he’s been better.
For more on what the swing changes, including how they’ve helped him against both fastballs and simply overall, and how it could stick going forward, be sure to check out Verducci’s post.
But be it swing changes, zone rates, peripherals, or regular old fashioned core stats, one thing seems clear: Jason Heyward is a new man at the plate, he’s hitting better than he ever has as a Cub, and it could just maybe be here to stay.