It’s Monday, the Cubs just lost three games in a row while each of the Cardinals and Brewers have come within just two games of first in the NL Central, and I just stubbed my toe on the coffee table.
Let’s talk about Jason Heyward.
After coming to the Cubs on a $184 million deal the winter before last, Jason Heyward had the worst season of his career. With the Cubs for the first time in 2016, he slashed just .230/.306/.325 with seven home runs and a 71 wRC+, all of which were, across the board, career lows.
After the Cubs won the World Series, however, Heyward worked on his swing all offseason long, (rightfully) earning high marks for his work ethic and progress, and, for at least a little while, things seemed to be much better. In particular, Heyward’s exit velocity improved early on, which was especially promising, because simply not hitting it hard enough was one of his fundamental problems in 2016.
More than that, his 71 wRC+ from 2016 was up rather significantly through the first month of the 2017 season (98 wRC+) and that’s typically when he’s been the coldest anyway (even during his best seasons). Optimism – well, relative optimism – was warranted.
Unfortunately, Heyward missed parts of May and June with injuries and his production during that stretch took a huge hit (78 wRC+). He bounced back in July (well, to the extent that a 90 wRC+ is supposed to be good), and it look like, for a moment, he could be a just slightly below average bat with his trademark sublime defense in right field the rest of the way.
And then his production pretty much imploded.
From August 1 until today, Heyward’s been slashing just .263/.336/.325 (76 wRC+), showing that even with consistent contact, a favorable BABIP, and some patience at the plate, you can’t succeed if you only hit singles; during these 128 plate appearances, Heyward’s ISO is down to just .061, as he lifted just five extra base hits (four doubles and a homer) in 35 games.
While it’s true that Heyward’s month of September has been a bit brighter (101 wRC+, .133 ISO), I’m just not ready to give him the corner just yet. It’s been only 34 plate appearances, and if his cherry-picked, short-sample, high water mark is just 1% better than the league average, we still have problems anyway.
Most troublingly, some of his peripherals this season are starting to look worse than his dreadful 2016 campaign. Take a look:
Let me remind you that the league average hard-hit rate among all non-pitchers this season is 32.3%, so Heyward is well below average. Indeed, his 24.8% mark is 10th worst in baseball among guys with at least 400 plate appearances. And if that’s not bad enough for you, consider that it drops down to 18.8% since August 1. We’re reaching critical levels here.
On top of that, Heyward’s groundball rate is up a bit from last year (now 46.8%), and that’s a lot higher than the 43.8% league average (again, among non-pitchers). Given all we know about the value of hard contact in the air in today’s environment, these numbers are pretty depressing.
And if all of that weren’t enough, Heyward’s infield fly ball rate has absolutely exploded this season to 19.0%. His career average before that was 13.4% and the league average this season is 9.6%. A high infield fly ball rate isn’t always indicative of something bad (Giancarlo Stanton is up there among the highest, for example), but it is suggestive of bad contact. Heyward’s 19.0% IFFB rate is the second highest in all of baseball (and it’s even worse (21.4%) since August 1). Groundballs are bad, too, but at least they have a small chance of turning into a hit. An infield pop up might as well be a strikeout.
So let’s recap here: Heyward is hitting more infield pop flys than usual, more grounders than usual, and is making some of the weakest contact in all of baseball. If he weren’t managing to strikeout under 15% of the time or walk nearly 10% over the past month or so (or if his glove began to slip), he’d probably have no place to play. That’s how bad this has gotten.
So what are the Cubs going to do?
Well, that part is not so clear. Heyward seems to be playing more now than ever, and that’s despite other outfield options on the bench. I know his defense is truly elite, but the bat is getting closer to unplayable levels every day, and the overall sample is not small. Can the Cubs keep sticking with him on a daily basis down the stretch and into the playoffs?
At some point, if things don’t turn around in an unexpected and dramatic way, the Cubs will have to make some hard decisions. If not this year, then at some point over the next six years of Heyward’s deal.