The Cubs don’t have many unanswered questions heading into Spring Training 2017.
They’ve kept most of their roster intact, plugged a few holes here and there (particularly at the back of the rotation), and are, of course, fresh off their first World Series title in over 100 years. Things are good.
But that doesn’t mean we know everything there is to know about how this team will perform next season. Indeed, one of the biggest remaining question marks, Jason Heyward, is slated to start about 140-150 games in the outfield.
And while his defense has never come into question (far from it), Heyward did struggle mightily at the plate in 2016 – we don’t need to go over the specifics again – and is hoping to be much improved next year. But he’s not just hoping to get better. He’s putting in the work.
Since the end of last season, Heyward’s been working hard on improving his production at the plate by reworking his swing. The goal, as has been reported by Cubs coaches and Heyward himself – is to return his swing back to it’s 2012 form – a year in which he hit 27 home runs with the Atlanta Braves. Well, Heyward’s been at camp for a while now, so let’s see how it looks.
Thanks to camera phones and Spring Training batting practice, we can actually get a pretty good look at his new swing from both the front and the back (thanks to Mike Berman and Randy Holt for tweeting out this footage):
— Mike Berman (@MikeBermanNBC) February 15, 2017
Some Jason Heyward action from this morning. pic.twitter.com/RAph1PkwQa
— Randy Holt (@RandallPnkFloyd) February 15, 2017
Now, for as much baseball as I watch and follow, I’m not confident in my ability to deeply analyze the differences in his swing from last season until now – much less from some oddly-angled, back-field footage like this. Brett feels the same way, but did pick up on a few notable bits:
Brett’s #NotAScout take: “I still feel like he’s opening up just a touch early, and the bat is dragging slightly behind (thanks to an almost imperceptible hitch). This is just one BP session, mind you, so no one should take a ton away from it.”
The last bit is probably the most important piece to note, as an early Spring Training batting practice session is far from the 9th inning of a regular season game. Heyward has been working on his swing throughout the offseason, but it’s not as though Pitchers and Catchers Report Day came and he automatically flipped a switch. In other words, it’ll probably still be a work in progress throughout the Spring.
And I’ll even take that a step further.
The 2012 season was the second best offensive performance of Heyward’s career (his 134 wRC+ in his rookie season beats out the 121 wRC+ from 2012), but that doesn’t mean he performed his best right out of the gate. In fact, his .337 wOBA in the first month of the season was quite a bit lower than the .351 wOBA he put up over the whole year.
First Month wOBA v. Full-Season wOBA
2010: .384 wOBA (March/April), .377 wOBA (full-season)
2011: .379 wOBA, .313 wOBA
2012: .337 wOBA, .351 wOBA
2013: .248 wOBA, .344 wOBA
2014: .280 wOBA, .329 wOBA
2015: .267 wOBA, .346 wOBA
2016: .281 wOBA, .282 wOBA
As you can see, with the exception of his first two years in the league, Heyward almost always performs better after the first month of the season – a trend that is especially apparent in the three seasons from 2013-2015. This might sound like me making excuses for Heyward before he even needs them, but I’m just trying to show you that even when he’s at his best, he’s at his worst early in the year.
All of which is to say, let the effects of the swing changes come as they come. The worst thing Heyward could do is react to negative early results and immediately make another change. Well, ok, he won’t do that, but neither should you.
You can read more about Heyward’s swing at the Athletic from Sahadev Sharma, including some of the more nuanced goals of the changes and how they’re addressing them. There is also some side-by-side videos of his swing with additional, useful analysis and quotes from the coaches. In short, Sharma reveals that Heyward’s new swing and the drills he’s been practicing are meant to:
- Improve his rhythm and balance,
- Overcome the problems associated with too much left-hand dominance, and
- Keep his hands more inside (to develop a shorter, more direct path to the ball)
Sharma has much more detail in his article on Heyward’s swing and the drills he’s working on, so be sure to check it out.
And as far as my unsolicited, feelings-based opinion goes, I believe in Heyward. I think he’s going to have a really solid year at the plate. He might not ever be the slugger he was in 2012, but I think he’ll contribute on both sides of the ball, and be the guy the Cubs hoped he could be when they signed him last offseason.