Let’s get some stuff out of the way upfront.
Jason Heyward is currently slashing .277/.360/.431 (120 wRC+) this season, with identical 10.5% walk and strikeout rates. For reference, his current walk rate would represent the highest since 2013 and his strikeout rate would be the best of his career. More importantly, his overall offensive contributions would be greater than what he did at the plate during his 4.7 WAR season with the Braves in 2014.
And it’s not all smoke and mirrors, as Heyward’s peripherals strongly suggest he’s earning this production (if not more).
Consider that …
- His .286 BABIP is below his career .300 average
- His .154 ISO is right in line with his career .151 ISO mark (and much better than 2017 (.130 ISO) and 2016 (0.94 ISO))
- He’s creating more hard contact (36.2%) than he has since his rookie year in 2010 (38.8 hard%)
- His 37.9% ground ball rate is much lower than it ever has been before
- His 48.3% fly ball rate is much higher than it’s ever been before
- He’s pulling the ball less than he ever has before (which isn’t always a good thing, but I’d say that’s the right spray-change for him right now)
- He’s swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone than he has since he was a rookie
- He’s swinging at more pitches in the zone than he ever has throughout his career
- And finally, his swinging strike rate is down quite a bit from last year
Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely not all good news (his zone-contact rate is down a bit from the last two years, his first-pitch strike rate is up, his soft% is higher than it should be, etc.), but on the whole, it’s pretty hard not to love what we’re seeing – at least, relative to our expectations.
In fact, I’d go as far as saying … Had this been his production over the first two years of his deal, that contract really wouldn’t look so bad right now. It wouldn’t be the overwhelming win the Cubs were hoping to receive once they unlocked the next level of Heyward’s power, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near the ugliness it has been and, frankly, still looks (look, I like what I’m seeing so far, but I’m not ready to proclaim Heyward is back – not by a long shot).
To that end, we probably shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Jason Heyward’s 8-year, $184 million deal signed before the 2016 season ranks as the 5th worst active contract in baseball by the ZiPS projections.
In an Insider article at ESPN, Dan Szymborski ranked the worst contracts in terms of surplus wins – “that is, the difference between the number of wins the team is paying for and the number of wins it’s projected to get for the remaining years of the contract” – and Heyward’s deal comes up as the fifth worst.
You’ll have to read the piece for the full list and attendant write-ups, but the bottom five for some context:
- Miguel Cabrera (-15 wins)
- Albert Pujols (-14.8 wins)
- Chris Davis (-11.9 wins)
- Ian Desmond (-7.9 wins)
- Jason Heyward (-7.5 wins)
According to Szymborski, Cubs fans should probably stop waiting for Heyward to turn things around offensively (but my peripherals!), which means the best they can likely hope for is 1-2 wins per season, thanks to his still excellent defense in right.
I still have hope – as always – but I can understand Szymborski’s position.
I obviously don’t know what’s going to happen with Heyward the rest of the way (and, to my eye, the issues with his swing look more or less the same), but I’m just not ready to rule out a mini-bounce back. After all, he’s still just 28, he has five full seasons of above-average offensive production, he’s got a brand new hitting coach, and, for the first time in forever, an above-average slash in Chicago with peripherals to support it.
Skepticism here is merited, but if Heyward can keep up his production somewhere between 110-115 wRC+, while maintaining his signature defense, he can easily be a 3-4 win player. And at that point, that pool of missing wins the Cubs paid for will start to shrink.
[Brett: This is all good stuff and well put, but I know immediately where folks will go next – yeah, but if he has that kind of season in 2018, will he opt out of his deal? Will the Cubs be able to trade him (he has a limited no-trade clause after this season)? To those questions, I would say (1) the kind of Trout-ian season he would need to have in 2018 in order to justify opting out of the final five years of his well-compensating deal is not possible, and (2) if there were an obvious trade fit out there and the Cubs ate a bunch of salary, yes, it’s possible that a very good (i.e., typical for Heyward before 2016) season in 2018 could make him a tradable piece. For now, though, I think all of that just gets way too far ahead of ourselves. It hasn’t even been a month yet. The early results and performance are great. No question. But let’s see if he can keep doing this for multiple months before we start thinking about the contract as anything other than an uncomfortable reality. For now, I’m just happy to see Heyward helping the Cubs win games. He’s been great.]