Jason Heyward Is Killing Them Softly … But Possibly Getting Better

jason heyward cubs roadI got a lotta folks asking variations of the same question during and after last night’s game, often actually submitted in the form of an angry statement: “the Cubs need to do something about Jason Heyward.”

I understand the impetus, as Heyward’s offensive struggles are deep and profound, and he came to the Cubs as a very high-profile addition. The 26-year-old is hitting .228/.316/.316 with a 74 wRC+, by far the worst performance of his career, and among the worst half a dozen performances in the National League. That’s scary bad. The glove is still phenomenal – so much so that it’s not like I’m in favor of benching the guy at this point – but it’s fair if you’re unnerved by the bat.

Equally scary is that the genesis of the low batting average and power, which together drive much of the poor results, does not appear to be entirely flukey. Though you may attribute it to too many groundballs, it’s not the groundball rate, alone, that is a problem (Heyward’s 48.7% groundball rate is only slightly higher than league average (45.0%) and is actually lower than his career mark (49.8%)). And groundballs, well struck, do not leave you with a nearly unplayable .273 batting average on balls in play.

Instead, the problem is even simpler, and you’ve seen it: he’s just not hitting the ball very hard.[adinserter block=”1″]

Sometimes our eyes lie, but on this front, the data backs it up. Consider that Heyward’s soft contact rate (27.2%) is his highest since 2011, and his hard contact rate (25.4%) is also his lowest since 2011. That hard contact rate is the 13th lowest in baseball right now. The soft contact rate? It’s the worst in baseball.

Take a look at Heyward’s exit velocity from 2015 (via Baseball Savant):

chart (10)

And, standing in very stark contrast, from 2016:

chart (11)

Heyward was consistently above average last year (even if last year’s average exit velocity had been as high as it is around baseball this year (interesting aside), he still would have consistently been topping it), and is consistently below average this year. Because exit velocity is correlated with hits and power, this significant drop is undoubtedly a part of why his results aren’t there.[adinserter block=”2″]

So it’s not just a matter of Heyward hitting a lot of groundballs. In fact, he’s pretty clearly trying to elevate the ball more, which was something we discussed at length in the offseason. Problem is, when you’re trying to elevate and you aren’t hitting the ball with authority, you get a lot of pop-ups, which are essentially as bad as strikeouts, because they never have a chance to become hits. Heyward’s 16.9% infield fly rate is, once again, his highest since 2011*, and is the sixth highest in baseball. Worse, the batters ahead of him are all guys you’d expect to see at the top of the list, and/or could easily live with it because either they hit an extremely small volume of fly balls overall or they’re sluggers who are trying to elevate and go deep (and frequently succeed).

You may recall discussion before the season about wanting Heyward, with his large build and long levers, to elevate the ball more to take advantage of his theoretically natural power. It is working in the sense that Heyward’s fly ball rate is up almost seven percentage points from last year, but, because he is not consistently striking the ball with authority, the increase in fly balls hasn’t really helped anything. Heyward’s .088 ISO is by far the lowest of his career, barely half his career mark, and seventh lowest in baseball (I warn you, don’t look at that list unless you want to become rather uncomfortable).

Wrist injuries are notorious for sapping a hitter’s ability to hit the ball with maximum authority, and we know that Heyward was dealing with a wrist injury for some time earlier this year (he mentioned at the All-Star break that he tried to play through it earlier in the season, though it’s not entirely clear whether he was still feeling discomfort after returning from getting a few days off in early May to rest it). I’m not going to speculate on injuries, and we’ve been given no indication that the discomfort persists to this day.

Whatever the reason – be it a cause or a result – not hitting the ball with authority, coupled with apparent adjustments the Cubs and Heyward (rightly) worked on before the season to have him elevate the ball more are actually having a disastrous effect on the results he’s getting. That doesn’t mean the adjustments were bad or cannot take hold with more time, but a guy hitting the ball as softly as Heyward is right now is not someone you want to see throwing his (already complicated) swing out of whack to try and elevate the ball. When he succeeds, he’s getting a ton of pop ups and weak fly balls. When he doesn’t, he’s getting other kinds of weak contact.[adinserter block=”3″]

But, are things at least getting better? Is there hope for more improvement in the second half?

Yes, of course! I’m an optimistic person! I wouldn’t leave you hanging like that!

If you stretch a bit, you can see perhaps some improvement in the exit velocity chart above in June and July, and there’s also this (via FanGraphs’ excellent graphing feature):

chart12

Starting right around game 50, which was June 8, you can see a dramatic drop in the infield fly ball rate, a steady decline in the soft contact, a plateauing in the hard contact rate (which was way up from the start of the year at that point), and a return in medium contact (largely at the expense of that soft contact). There are legitimately good signs there!

So, surely Heyward’s results are much better from June 8th on, right? Well, he’s hitting .238/.315/.325 in that stretch, and the numbers pretty much match his season numbers across the board. HOWEVA, the soft contact is way down, the hard contact is way up, the infield fly ball rate is way down, and the groundball rate is flat.

If those trends continue, the results will soon follow. What we may be seeing in these numbers is a manifestation of what, for one example, Joe Maddon has been saying a lot for the past month and a half: Heyward’s hitting the ball hard, he’s just hitting it at people. I suspect, for many of you, your gut just won’t believe it. But, hey, the data is the data.

When considering it all, I see a hitter who had some issues because of a wrist injury, who probably isn’t getting the results that certain swing changes were designed to produce, who isn’t making the kind of hard contact he has through his career, and who is also suffering through some bad luck. The results have not been better lately, but the underlying batted ball data has been. The latter predicts the future slightly better than the former, so maybe there is hope for a rebound in the coming months.

I think we should be realistic on that front, and perhaps not hope for an offensive force, but there are reasons to believe Heyward can at least be an average hitter for the rest of the year. And then, from there, hopefully with an offseason to reset, re-evaluate, etc., he can get back on track (which is what happened, incidentally, in 2011*).


*(There are so many parallels in the numbers between this year and 2011, the season after Heyward’s impressive rookie debut, right down to an apparent attempt to elevate the ball more. That would make some sense, given that everyone’s been trying to get more power out of Heyward’s huge build, and his sophomore season would include a number of adjustments as well. Perhaps the Braves tried something similar to what the Cubs are trying now. Perhaps it didn’t work. (That season also included a Spring Training shoulder injury that lingered until he was put on the DL in May for a bit. Again, so many parallels to this year.))

written by

Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

more cubs news

Spring Training Miscellany: Cubs Beat Brewers, Wicks, Kilian, Canario, Wieck, More

Here's hoping today's outcome against the Brewers is a preview for the regular season. Cubs win 6-1. Jordan Wicks looked pretty good today, using all of his pitches, getting a ton of grounders, and striking out two through three scoreless....

Cubs vs Brewers: Lineups, Broadcast Info, Game Thread

*HOMAGE is excited to reissue the iconic CUBS STARTER SATIN JACKET in an exclusive limited edition release. A certified nineties throwback, these exclusive vintage-inspired jackets are built for the dugout, with all the classic details of the original. Get your...

Notes and Thoughts from Cody Bellinger’s Return Press Conference

If you weren't able to watch the Cody Bellinger re-introductory press conference, the Chicago Cubs streamed it on Twitter, so you can catch up if you like (I am embedding it at the bottom of this post). Some of the...

Everyone Jokes (They Are Jokes, Right?) About the Cubs Doing Another Deal with Scott Boras

The Cody Bellinger re-introductory press conference is happening right now, complete with his agent Scott Boras, but there are a couple things I had to note right now. They are jokes. Just jokes. Almost certainly just jokes. First was this,...

Cody Bellinger is Back and Working with the Team, But Don’t Expect to See Him in a Cubs Game Right Away

With his new three-year deal officially official, Cody Bellinger is back with the Chicago Cubs, working out today at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. https://twitter.com/WatchMarquee/status/1762869431930102066 Bellinger got right out on the practice fields to work with his mates, which was...

Insight Into Craig Counsell’s Relationship with the Chicago Cubs’ Front Office

Back when he was hired to be the new manager of the Chicago Cubs, replacing David Ross and receiving the largest managerial contract in baseball history, one of the main talking point about Craig Counsell was that he is more...

Cubs All Done in the Bullpen? Out on Ryne Stanek?

I'd wanted to touch on this yesterday, but since we knew a pitcher trade was likely to happen, I figured I would wait to see what the fallout there suggested. That trade happened - Bailey Horn for Matt Thompson -...

Big Free Agents, Tough Divisions, Belli Back, PCA and Bunting, and Other Cubs Bullets

Like everyone else in the Midwest, it seems, we dealt with tornado warnings and sirens in the wee hours. And because there were reports of actual tornados in the area, we did the whole get-the-kids-and-go-to-the-basement thing. So we're all gonna...

Officially Official: Cody Bellinger is Back

With the Bailey Horn trade executed and a 40-man roster spot opened, the Chicago Cubs were free today to finalized Cody Bellinger's re-signing. The team announced it as officially official: https://twitter.com/Cubs/status/1762614686384628199 Cody Bellinger was a stud for the Cubs last...

Spring Training Miscellany: Fly The T, Youngsters Come Back, Hendricks, Shaw, PCA, More

The Cubs came back from a 6-0 deficit in the late innings to tie this one up, and that's where it ended, a 6-6 tie with the Reds. It's Spring Training after all. It took 7+ innings today after a...

Latest News

Big Sky Basketball Predictions, Computer Picks and Best Bets | February 29

The Thursday college basketball schedule includes four games featuring a Big Sky team on the court. Among those contests is the Montana Grizzlies squaring off against the Eastern Washington Eagles. Here are our recomendations for the best bets on action...

Big South Basketball Predictions, Computer Picks and Best Bets | February 29

The Longwood Lancers and the Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs hit the court for the only game on Thursday's college basketball schedule with Big South teams. Want best bets information? You've come to the right place.How to Bet on Big South Games[lasso...

CAA Basketball Predictions, Computer Picks and Best Bets | February 29

Seven games on Thursday's college basketball schedule feature a CAA team, including the matchup between the Monmouth Hawks and the Hampton Pirates. We have best bets recommendations for the entire conference below.How to Bet on CAA Games[lasso rel="draftkings-promo-1" id="299003"]Best CAA...

Big West Basketball Predictions, Computer Picks and Best Bets | February 29

Big West teams will take the court in five games on Thursday's college basketball slate, and we have your best bets information below. That includes the CSU Fullerton Titans playing the Long Beach State Beach at Walter Pyramid.How to Bet...

Summit League Basketball Predictions, Computer Picks and Best Bets | February 29

Summit League squads are on Thursday's college basketball schedule in four games, including the UMKC Kangaroos squaring off against the Denver Pioneers, and best bets tips are below.How to Bet on Summit League Games[lasso ref="draftkings-promo-1" id="299003" link_id="1436952"]Best Summit League Spread...

NEC Basketball Predictions, Computer Picks and Best Bets | February 29

NEC teams will hit the court across four games on Thursday's college basketball schedule. That includes the Merrimack Warriors playing the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights at Rothman Center, and we have best bets recommendations across the board.How to Bet on NEC...

WCC Basketball Predictions, Computer Picks and Best Bets | February 29

The Thursday college basketball schedule includes four games featuring a WCC team in play. Among those contests is the San Diego Toreros squaring off against the Loyola Marymount Lions. Here are our recomendations for the best bets on action throughout...

WAC Basketball Predictions, Computer Picks and Best Bets | February 29

WAC teams will be in action in five games on Thursday's college basketball schedule, and we have your best bets information below. That includes the Tarleton State Texans taking on the Utah Tech Trailblazers at Burns Arena.How to Bet on...

America East Basketball Predictions, Computer Picks and Best Bets | February 29

The Thursday college basketball slate includes four games featuring a America East team in action. Among those games is the UMBC Retrievers squaring off against the NJIT Highlanders. Here are our recomendations for the best bets on action throughout the...

OVC Basketball Predictions, Computer Picks and Best Bets | February 29

OVC teams are on Thursday's college basketball schedule in five games, including the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks playing the Morehead State Eagles, and here are some best bets for you to make.How to Bet on OVC Games[lasso ref="draftkings-promo-1" id="299003" link_id="1436926"]Best...

more cubs news