Can Jason Heyward Bounce Back Offensively in 2017? The Optimistic Case

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Can Jason Heyward Bounce Back Offensively in 2017? The Optimistic Case

Chicago Cubs

jason heyward screamThroughout the 2016 regular season, I was probably one of the most vocal Jason Heyward supporters on Twitter and here at Bleacher Nation.

I sat there in April and May and discussed small samples, and his usual slow start to the season. I sat there in July and told you about how the All-Star break might get him back on track. I sat there in August and prattled on about his 50-75 plate appearance hot streaks here and there. And I sat there in October and argued that his glove may justify his starts in the outfield.

If you’ve been following me, or reading any of my articles, you already know this.

One thing I made sure to note, however, was that I knew he wasn’t performing at the plate. That much was clear. Heyward simply wasn’t an offensive threat in 2016 any which way you sliced it. But I also thought then, and still think now, that he can be an offensive threat going forward. Can. But how?

Back at the beginning of November – just before, during, and after the World Series – Carrie Muskat, Jeff Sullivan, and Rian Watt discussed what exactly went wrong, how Heyward was being attacked, what the front office thought about his season, and how pitchers were attacking him. All of it was spot on, and all of it still makes sense right now (so give those articles a read for some background before continuing).

But I’ll sit here today, as I have throughout the past year, and tell you that I still believe in Jason Heyward’s potential as an offensive threat in 2017, and I’ll tell you why.

First and foremost, let’s talk about some of the less objective, but arguably very important off-field stuff.

Jason Heyward is, without question, an extremely hard worker. And fortunately, that matters for him now more than ever. His swing was completely broken in 2016, and he’ll have to make multiple, difficult, and sweeping changes to fix it. Heyward knows this, and has literally moved to Arizona so that he can work with Cubs coaches on his swing. He’s already getting busy on the necessary changes (CBS), at a time when most other players haven’t even started the process of gearing up for Spring Training.

And don’t discount the importance of being a hard worker. Kyle Schwarber came back to dominate at the plate in the World Series after having not played for six months not solely because he’s some generational talent, destined to become the next *insert whoever you think is the best hitter here*. No, he was able to do what he did, in large part because he worked his ass off and got himself prepared. We already know that Jason Heyward has the same work ethic (his coaches, teammates, front office, former managers, everyone indicates the same).

And there’s also the fact that, despite an oddly inaccurate narrative, Heyward was very good at the plate for his entire career before last season.

Heyward made his debut in 2010, and aside from a sophomore slump at the age of just 21 years old in 2011, he was an above average hitter every single season before coming to the Cubs.

  • 2010: 134 wRC+
  • 2011: 96 wRC+
  • 2012: 121 wRC+
  • 2013: 120 wRC+
  • 2014: 109 wRC+
  • 2015: 120 wRC+

wRC+ is a way to measure how much better or worse a player is than the average Major League hitter over the course of a season. 100 is exactly average, and anything above or below 100 is how much (percent) better or worse that player was than league average. In the six seasons before coming to Chicago, Heyward was below average just once (and he was pretty darn close to average), and his career wRC+ was 117.

For perspective, Buster Posey had a 116 wRC+ in 2016. That means that Jason Heyward, over six years, put up about the same amount of offense that Buster Posey put up in 2016 (when he was the 24th most valuable offensive player in the NL). So to suggest Heyward was never anything more than a light-hitting, defensive first player just isn’t fair or accurate.

In 2016, of course, Heyward posted a terrible 72 wRC+ in just shy of 600 plate appearances. But (especially given his age, he only just turned 27 in August), I think it would be wholly misleading to weight his last 592 plate appearances (at a 72 wRC+) evenly against the 3,429 plate appearances (117 wRC+) that came prior. Do we think 2016 probably weights a little more heavily than a season five years ago? Sure. But you don’t throw out all the previous seasons entirely.

[Brett: Let me add one other not-super-analytical consideration. In 2016, Jason Heyward was a newly-signed player on an enormous contract, joining a very good Cubs team with considerable expectations. He struggled out of the gate, dealt with a wrist issue, and the offensive performance spiraled from there. Although the performance was what it was, I do think it’s fair to wonder if that performance was negatively impacted at the margins by the pressure associated with the way everything played out. That particular pressure, such as it existed, is now completely gone – replaced only by the pressure to have a better season.]

So, to button up the partially fluffy, subjective stuff, Heyward has a long history of success (he posted an excellent 117 wRC+ in more than 85% of his career), age on his side, and the type of inarguable work ethic required to make the changes he’ll need.

But I know you want something more objective than that.

Hopefully, you’re not expecting to read about how a bunch of hard-luck statistics combined to artificially lower Heyward’s production, because that isn’t really the case. Heyward’s numbers in 2016 were terrible, and, for the most part, he earned them.

That said, there are some things to be optimistic about.

Notably, Heyward’s walk rate in 2016 (9.1%) was almost identical to his solid 2015 campaign with the Cardinals, while his strikeout rate (15.7%) was actually lower than his already excellent career average (18.1%). In short, that implies that he was still seeing the ball fine. It’s not as though he was suddenly incapable of recognizing pitches or taking walks, and began striking out like crazy.

Separately, Heyward experienced at least *some* bad luck on balls in play, because his BABIP in 2016 (.266) was the second lowest of his career (2011 – .260) and way below his career average before this season (.309). Usually, I’d point to this right up front as a clear reason for expected positive regression, but that would be going too far considering how much softer he hit the ball in 2016 – he was just not making good contact.

But there’s more to be optimistic about than that.

Before the 2016 season, one of Heyward’s biggest offensive criticisms was that he wasn’t living up to his power potential. Scouts had long predicted the power explosion of 2012 (27 home runs, .210 ISO, .479 SLG) was closer to his true talent than the numbers he’s posted in other seasons. The number one reason/explanation for the absence of power was that Heyward hit too many ground balls, and not enough line drives and fly balls – essentially, he needed to elevate the ball more often.

After signing with Chicago, the prevailing wisdom was that the Cubs were going to work with Heyward to alter his swing in order to produce more balls in the air, and the early returns on that front were actually quite good. Check out some of his batted ball data from 2016 alongside his career averages before the season started.

  • LD Rate: 20.5% (18.4%)
  • GB Rate: 46.2% (49.9%)
  • FB Rate: 33.3% (31.7%)

Heyward hit a lot more line drives, a lot fewer ground balls, and slightly more fly balls to try to tap into the type of power you might presume his frame could support. That type of switch in batted ball result (in addition to some softer contact), by the way, is a possible explanation for the sudden drop in BABIP (and thus, batting average).

Essentially, Heyward did what was asked of him.

What I wonder, however, was whether he took it too far in that direction. By changing his swing in an effort to elevate the ball more, Heyward lost whatever was allowing him to be productive at the plate in other ways. Obviously, the overall results were not good, but his ability to change his swing and get the type of balls in play he was looking for is encouraging.

For 2017 then, I’m encouraged.

I don’t want or expect Heyward to simply go back to being the guy he was before he came to Chicago (even though that guy was very good). Instead, I expect him to continue trying to be better than he ever was. Maybe he can take what he learned this season, dial it back a bit, and find a middle ground that optimizes his raw, inherent skills at the plate, with the potential and power lurking in the background.

He’s already proved that he can make changes to his swing (for better or for worse, he elevated the ball more often in 2016), has age on his side (27 years old), an approach that hasn’t diminished (better K/BB ratio), and the type of work ethic, track record, and time needed to make everything come together.

Call me crazy, but mark me down now for an above average offensive season from Jason Heyward in 2017.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami