Jason Heyward did not find his name on the Cubs’ lineup card when he walked into the clubhouse for the Cubs/Brewers finale yesterday, but that’s no indication of the way things have gone for him this season.
After a myriad of offensive struggles in his debut season with the Cubs last year, Heyward famously reworked his swing over the winter and, so far, things have been looking good.
Anyone who’s had their eyes on Heyward this season knows that he’s been hitting the ball with more consistent authority than he ever has as a Cub, and he also genuinely seems more comfortable at the plate. His swing still looks strange to some – compared to a more traditional whip – but the early results have been good.
Through his first 54 plate appearances of 2017, Jason Heyward has slashed .294/.345/.333 with a 5.5% walk rate and an 12.7% strikeout rate. In terms of overall production, that’s good for a .304 wOBA and a just-below league average 90 wRC+ (100 wRC+ is average).
Obviously, when compared to last season (.230/.306/.325, 72 wRC+), that slash line looks magnificent. In general, his production is a full 18 percentage points better than his 2016 effort.
… of course, I’m sure that’s not where most of your minds went right away. Lauding your current results against your career lows shouldn’t exactly be impressive (especially when the new numbers are still below average, and far below your career marks), but there’s a lot more to this than that.
In the three seasons that preceded his contract with the Chicago Cubs, Jason Heyward was an above average offensive contributor. In fact, in two out of those three seasons he was 20% better than the average hitter. That’s really fantastic.
However, even in those strong offensive years, he got off to a slow start at the plate – in fact, each season featured a start far slower than the one he’s gotten off to in 2017:
In every single one of the last four seasons (not including 2017), Jason Heyward has gotten off to a very slow start at the plate (roughly 55 PAs). Even last year, when he was at his absolute worst offensively, Heyward’s production improved by over 50% by the time the year was over.
On average over the last four years , however, that early season production has improved by 93% by the time the season was over! Obviously we shouldn’t expect Heyward to finish out the year with a 174 wRC+, but his production to date (90 wRC+) has been MILES better than what we’ve seen this far into the season in the recent past. That’s is really actually something.
But it’s not all.
Encouragingly, Heyward’s batted ball data has seen some marked improvements as well. Of course, those who’ve been watching could tell that many of his balls in play sure look like rockets, but it’s good to see the numbers support what our eyes have told us. Recall, one of the primary drivers of Heyward’s struggles last year was that he simply wasn’t hitting the ball very hard.
2017 Batted Ball Data (2016 in parenthesis)
- Soft-Hit Rate: 22.7% (27.0%)
- Medium-Hit Rate: 54.5% (46.6%)
- Hard-Hit Rate: 22.7% (26.4%)
First and foremost, yes his hard hit rate is down from last season, but given the other changes, this seems like an obvious win for Heyward. Plus, those are his full season averages compared to his 2017 cold-month hitting. Combine that with his line drive rate (which is up more than 20% over his career mark), and voila: more positive signs.
Of course, there are things he can improve on. For one, he’s been trying to elevate the ball more for just about his entire career, and so far he’s still struggling with that in 2017. His fly-ball rate this season (29.5%) is actually lower than his career average (31.9%). If he wants to improve upon his low (so far) 2017 slugging percentage, he’ll have to start there.
With that said, one of Heyward’s biggest headaches from last year was the constant roll-over grounders to the right side of the infield. In 2017, however, his ground ball rate (47.7%), while still high, is down from his career mark (49.3%) and he’s going the opposite way more now (29.5%) than ever before (23.1%).
So let’s work backwards and wrap this up neatly for when you stand up for Heyward to your friends later on.
In the early going here in 2017, Jason Heyward has been hitting fewer ground balls and more line drives than he typically has in his career. He’s also making far less soft contact than Cubs fans are used to seeing, and, thus, better overall contact than he did last year.
And most importantly, Heyward is doing all of this in the coldest months of the year, when he has typically been the worst offensive version of himself throughout the season.
Put differently, even if these were Jason Heyward’s final season numbers, there would be things to be pleased about. But given the trends he’s shown in each of his last four seasons, there’s reason to believe he’s going to get even better. It’s been a long time coming and we’ve been extremely patient, but I suspect Jason Heyward is in for a bounce-back year.
And if the positivity train today put you in the mood for Cubs gear, note that there’s a 20% off sale today at Fanatics – just use the code TAKE20.