Listen, I already know what you’re thinking, and I agree: three straight seasons of Jason Heyward’s peripherals say this and Jason Heyward’s peripherals say that is getting exhausting. Rarely has any of our optimism been rewarded, so for today, we’ll keep our expectations extremely tempered.
No matter how good many of the peripherals I’m about to show you look, let’s just all agree that Heyward will have to prove it with actual results on the field before we feel the positivity, much less call for any more playing time (and that’s even easier to say than usual, given how well Albert Almora, Ian Happ, and Kyle Schwarber have been playing).
But, sigh, there have been some very notable improvements behind the scenes for Heyward, and we can’t just ignore them. So buckle up, because here’s another Heyward has actually been pretty unlucky this season post. Please be gentle.
First, the actual results. Through 37 games (136 PAs), Jason Heyward has slashed an ugly .222/.306/.350 this season, which is good for just an 80 wRC+, lower than the mark he posted last season (88 wRC+). In other words, results-wise, Heyward has not just been bad, he’s been worse than last season, which was pretty darn bad.
But. Some numbers behind the numbers.
In his first two seasons with the Cubs, Heyward has walked an 8.9% rate and struck out 14.9% of the time. This season? He’s at 10.3 BB% and 11.8 K%. Those are pretty extreme improvements for both rates. His walk rate this season is now equal to his career rate, which was always quite good, while his strikeout rate is far below his career average (17.5%).
Counter Point: Heyward is swinging at more pitches out of the zone and fewer pitches in the zone this year than last.
Rebuttal: But pretty much everything is right in line with where he usually is, and he’s actually swinging less often overall with a lower whiff rate. There’s nothing in his plate discipline data that suggests his walk and strikeout rate improvements are totally bogus or unearned. Although, again, he was always pretty good in this arena (i.e. taking walks or striking out has never been his main issue).
Batted Ball Data
Among Heyward’s biggest flaws as a Chicago Cub has been his ______ (please fill in the blank). Oooh. I’m sorry, we were looking for “too many grounders.”
During his first two seasons in Chicago, Heyward’s 46.8% ground ball rate was extremely high on its own, let alone in an era where batters are lifting the ball more than ever. But this season, that number is all the way down to 37.9%. If you can believe it, he was hitting even more grounders before coming to the Cubs, so that 37.9% rate here in 2018 is actually more than 10 percentage points lower than his career mark (48.8%). Relatively speaking, dude has stopped hitting groundballs all the time.
Alongside the drop in grounders, naturally, came a huge rise in his fly ball rate. From 2016-2017, Heyward hit fly balls only 33.0% of the time. This season, that number is up to 46.6%. Of course, that would only matter if he was hitting the ball with authority … what’s that? His 34.6% hard-hit rate is not just above the Major League average, it’s eight percentage points higher than the mark he posted during his first two seasons in Chicago? Well, all right.
Counter Point: Heyward’s line drive rate is down to just 15.5%, which isn’t great, and his infield fly ball rate (which is a good measure of very bad contact) is higher than it’s been since 2011. Those are both really bad signs, actually (in fact, they’re the two biggest facts working against him). They are suggestive that, regardless of him hitting the ball “hard,” he’s not really squaring it up regularly.
Rebuttal: HOWEVA, even if you strip out the 20.8% infield fly ball rate, and consider only the “good” in-the-air contact he’s had (outfield fly balls and line drives), Heyward is left with (updated the numbers here after some clarifications in the comments, but the point remains wholly in tact (not that it makes you feel that much better anyway)) 52.4%, which is still much higher than it was in 2017 (46.6%), 2016 (49.0), and even his really solid 2015 season with the Cardinals (40.0%).
More Batted Ball Data
At Baseball Savant, we can also see that Heyward’s 4.8% barrel rate is higher than anything he’s posted in the past four seasons:
While his 89.1 MPH average exit velocity is much better than 2017 (86.4 MPH) and 2016 (86.6 MPH) and almost exactly in line with his solid 2015 campaign (89.2 MPH). And his launch angle really is better than that stretch, too:
2015: 4.7 degrees
Counter Point: Sure, these are improvements, but his 3.7 barrels per plate appearance still ranks 37th lowest in MLB.
Rebuttal: Well, actually, yeah, I don’t have much of an argument there, other than to point out that his barrels per batted ball event is higher, and because he’s walking so much that might be actually be a better measure.
It’s also worth pointing out that Heyward’s .238 BABIP is far lower than his career average of .298 and not at all in line with how much harder he’s hitting the ball this year. To be sure, fewer grounders and line drives will often cause BABIP to fall, but there’s really no reason it should be this low, in my opinion. Ditto his 4.2% HR/FB ratio, which is among the lowest in baseball and less than half his rate last season (again, despite much more hard contact this year). There’s reason to believe that Heyward creates some weird spin which causes the ball to die shorter than others, but I have to believe this is at least somewhat unlucky.
So where are we? Well, nowhere.
I really don’t want to be misunderstood, so I’ll spell it out: I believe in the utility of every single statistic above and think there is pretty clearly some reason to be more optimistic about these peripherals than any other time we’ve dug into Heyward’s numbers … and yet, I can’t just ignore my own experiences. Usually, when a guy is walking more, striking out less, hitting the ball harder than ever, and putting it in the air, we’d get giddy. But with Heyward, it’s just hard to let yourself go there.
And until he actually begins to deliver on these numbers, we’ll have to just assume something about the way he hits the ball renders his peripherals less useful than they are for other players (some working theories include that poor backspin on fly balls and a majority of his hard contact coming on grounders thanks to his swing style, but perhaps we can dig into that in a few more weeks).
So the best I can do for you today is this: maybe you can kinda, sorta feel some extremely guarded, cautious, double-seat belt optimism for Heyward. But probably don’t do that to yourself.