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Analysis Cubs Editorials Opinion Spring Training 2018

Cubs: Will Jason Heyward’s Offense Finally Rebound?

Entering the third season of a monster deal for Jason Heyward, the one-time all-star caliber hitter is still looking to find that form in Chicago.

The 2018 Cubs have story lines aplenty. From the revamped pitching staff, to the effect Joe Maddon‘s new coaching staff will have, to Kyle Schwarber‘s new physique, this team maintains a feeling of refreshment, renewed energy, and optimism. Still, there’s one player that has been overlooked in the process, and that is Jason Heyward.

The disdain for Heyward is as tired as it is lazy — and it’s also entirely unsurprising. I get when someone limps to a .230/.306/.325 triple slash after signing a massive contract that criticism is both justified and necessary. That criticism, however, shouldn’t meld with vitriol. Even as Heyward retooled his swing last off-season, producing a better-but-still-lacking triple slash of .259/.326/.389, disdain for him only seemed to get louder.

Never mind the reality that he actually took less money to sign with the Cubs than what was offered elsewhere. Or that his leadership and clubhouse persona is well received and appreciated. Or that his elite defense remains. Or that he’s dedicated to his craft enough to completely revamp his offensive approach after making his money. Because, you know, those things don’t matter when you’re not hitting, right?

At age 28 it’s not unreasonable to think he could still be an offensive force in Chicago. In 2015 with St. Louis, his triple slash was .293/.359/.439, and combined with his defense, he put up a WAR of 6.1. His best year came in 2012, when he hit 27 home runs en route to a 6.5 WAR. I’m not here to suggest that he’ll suddenly click and return to numbers reflective of those seasons; it’s also not outside the realm of possibility his offense becomes a blessing instead of a burden.

The Chili Davis Factor

New hitting coach Chili Davis — who made his way to Chicago replacing John Mallee much like Joe Maddon replacing Rick Renteria — is next in line in working with Heyward. While I hesitate to think a new voice will be a panacea for Heyward’s offensive ills, the early indications are that this could be a great relationship. Theo Epstein is high on the potential of Chili’s influence, citing his ability to work well with line-drive hitters. And given Heyward is certainly not a launch angle aficionado, Theo’s point remains strong.

Heyward’s 19.9 line drive percentage from 2017 is decent (actually tied with Kris Bryant) he made way too much soft contact (25.7 percent) and not nearly enough hard contact (25.5 percent) overall. The goal, for Davis, is to help Heyward keep up or better that line drive percentage while limiting his soft contact. For perspective, Heyward’s 2012 numbers displayed a soft contact rate of just 16.7 percent with a terrific hard contact rate of 34.5 percent. In short, the possibility is there.

As with last year Heyward began working on his swing early this off-season, this time with Davis in tow. Liking his work ethic and approach, he’s taken a coaching approach that seems like it could very well resonate with Heyward: ‘‘I’ve heard a lot of different opinions about Jason Heyward,’’ Davis said. ‘‘The one thing I want to point out to him is that I’m the kind of person [who doesn’t] care what anyone says about you.”

This attitude and approach feels new with regard to Heyward’s offensive approach, and hopefully create the potential for production more befitting of expectations prior to the 2016 season.

An Unfavorable Comparison

While Chili Davis could very well be a key to Heyward’s success, I do have some apprehension. This is yet another voice, another approach, another adjustment in Heyward’s short tenure with the Cubs. This hearkens back to the days of Starlin Castro in the Dale Svuem era. Listening to too many voices with too many to count novel ideas on what adjustments needed to be made, Starlin struggled mightily in 2013. Of course, this was Svuem’s fault as much as it was Starlin’s, and the parallels between him and Heyward are thin (at best). What does exist, however, is the similarity that too many people giving you advice with regard to your struggles often creates the opposite effect of what’s desired.

Thankfully, the approach the Cubs seem to be taking with Heyward is vastly different than the days of Castro. While I remain hesitant that a continuous evolution will produce the desired results, there is no animosity between him and the club (or his coaches). There’s correlation here, to be sure, but the reality of these relationships couldn’t be more different.

What About 2018?

I wholly expect Heyward’s offensive production to take another step forward for the Cubs in 2018. I’m going to pause from predicting a break out year, but I do think he’ll outperform the positive Fangraphs projections:

ZiPS – .262/.335/.393, 11 HR, 60 RBI, 2.0 WAR

Steamer – .268/.344/.419, 12 HR, 55 RBI, 2.1 WAR

Heyward sees a ridiculous amount of fastballs. In 2016, he saw them over 65 percent of the time, and in 2017 that number remained high at over 62 percent. I’d like to see him take advantage of this, showing aggression early in the count, looking to jump on first pitch fastballs and attempts to bust him inside. If Heyward is able to establish that he’s found “it” again, he’ll create a comfort at the plate that might just allow him to rediscover the potential that lay in his 6-foot-5 frame.

Ultimately I think we’ll see an improved offensive campaign, though inconsistency and cold streaks could very well be expected. Despite Heyward’s contract, his playing time could be in jeopardy if he’s not hitting, as Maddon will surely look to maximize the roster based on matchups, etc.

2018 will prove to be Jason’s best as a Cub, (hopefully) silencing the critics in the process.

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Austin is the Lead Cubs Writer for The Loop Sports. He's a lifelong baseball junkie (due to his father) and as a former college pitcher has a particular affinity for the art of pitching. Austin loves to commute in Chicago on his bicycle, and enjoys camping and canoeing as often as possible. He attained his master's degree in Social Justice and Community Development from Loyola University Chicago in 2014.

7 comments on “Cubs: Will Jason Heyward’s Offense Finally Rebound?

  1. K. Anthony

    Respectfully, you offer no reason other than (paraphrasing) “ he can’t possibly be this bad, right”. Unfortunately, he is this bad. You hit the problem and seem to dismiss it as coincidental. Low hard contact, high soft contact from a long swing that gets absolutely destroyed by pitches on the inner part of the K zone. This is a major issue that screams “it’s not 2013 anymore”. I would jump for joy if he remotely reached those zips. I’m not holding out any hope that this contract will somehow reap benefits with 2 war seasons (I’d trade great locker room presence for production any day). This is simply a lost contract. Thankfully they’re built to be able to absorb a $28 mil defensive specialist.

    • Austin Bloomberg

      You’ve got me, K. Anthony. I wrote this with a premise built on an optimism, however unrealistic, that the Heyward pre-Cubs can be recaptured — at least to some capacity. I wasn’t afforded the chance to argue statistically, because advanced metrics (as you are aware) aren’t terribly kind to him.
      That said, I agree with you that his locker room presence is “great”, and certainly is helpful to this team. I’d also like to point out that, even in that horrendous 2016 from an offensive standpoint, he still managed to put up a WAR of 1.9 (per Fangraphs). So even if Heyward’s offense only improves slightly from last year (essentially what both projections I posted suggest) he’ll be a 2’ish WAR player. Granted, that’s a far cry from what one would hope his WAR would be given the contract, but I wrote this article without consideration of his production vs. contract because, well, this was a contract that I never expected him to live up to to begin with.
      Thanks for reading, and I appreciate the thoughtful rebuttal!

  2. K. Anthony

    I can’t disagree with the front offices logic. 26 yr old coming off of 6.5 war season is a high priority in free agency ant the fact that a team loaded with young stars llike Riz and KB would go for it like that was impressive. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. There’s no getting out of this one except for one remote chance that he puts up a good ‘18 and absolutely kills it in ‘19. That’s the only scenario where he might be foolish to opt out.

  3. John Korsgaard

    There are no “first string” corner outfielders with a lower 2 yr ops+ in history. Also bear in mind that for a corner outfielder the median is not 100 but 116.

    • Austin Bloomberg

      That’s not even remotely accurate. I did a quick search on Baseball Reference and Alex Gordon’s OPS+ the past two seasons are worse than Heyward’s. Heyward, in 2016 had an OPS+ of 68, and in 2017 it was 85. Gordon, on the other hand, had an OPS+ of 85 in 2016 and in 2017 his was 62. (PA for each over the past two seasons are quite similar overall.)
      I’m not making some sort of claim that Heyward has been an offensive powerhouse. But if you are going to knock his offense at least use accurate statistics. Your claim was easy to prove false with little effort.

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