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.