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A stance on Jason Heyward's early season difficulties

The Cardinals made a major offseason trade to acquire star outfielder Jason Heyward. So far this season Heyward has struggled. What have pitchers done to approach getting him out?

Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday night, Shelby Miller threw the season's first Maddux. A Maddux, for those who have shockingly managed to avoid reading my words about it, is when a starting pitcher throws a complete game 9-inning shutout with fewer than 100 pitches. I did not invent this term, as far as I can tell Jason Lukehart did here. Miller's Maddux reminded me of the major offseason trade that brought Miller to the Braves. The Braves sent star outfielder Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden to the Cardinals in exchange for Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins. Miller has pitched very well during his first month in Atlanta (1.66 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 12.0 K-BB%); at least partially a result of his new approach for attacking hitters. But, as you may have deduced from the title of the piece, it is not Miller that I want to focus on here. It is Jason Heyward.

Heyward was the focal point of the offseason trade, which at the time looked like another coup for the Cardinals excellent front office staff. Heyward is coming off a season in which he provided 5.2 wins above replacement (fWAR). Much of that value comes on defense, but he is no slouch at the plate. But so far this season, while the Cardinals have excelled - 20-6, +44 run differential, best start in franchise history since 1889, when they were the St. Louis Browns of the American Association - Heyward has performed at replacement level; giving back all his defensive value in his trips to the plate. His 74 wRC+ is well below his career level (115) and also below his typical March/April performance (101). He is a bit of a slow starter, but this year he has been even slower. His 6.7 percent walk rate (BB%) is down considerably from career marks (11.0), and while his 17.1 percent strikeout rate (K%) is below his career mark (19.2 percent) it is higher than what it was in 2014 (15.1) and 2013 (16.6). Some of Heyward's offensive struggle is a result of poor batted ball luck (.256 batting average on balls in play; BABIP), but the concerning thing is that he has this BABIP while putting up a line drive rate (LD%: 17.5 percent) that is only slightly depressed from his typical rate (18.2). Heyward's issue is that he is hitting ground balls at a ridiculously high rate (GB%: 63.8); 18 percent higher than his usual rate. He is trading fly balls for ground balls, which in theory should benefit his batting average, but not his power numbers.

Clearly, the numbers cited above do not guarantee or even predict a poor season for Heyward. Dan Szymborski's projection system, ZiPS, expects a 114 wRC+ the rest of the way, and the Steamer system has him projected for 120. A lot of things can happen in a month, especially when a player is adjusting to a new setting as is Heyward. However, I wondered about other adjustments that Heyward is making, or if there are new ways that pitchers are approaching getting him out. Looking at a usage chart from Brooks Baseball reveals that opponents have been fairly consistent with the pitches used to attack Heyward:

There are evidently slight changes within each category across years, but none involves more than a 3% change. While pitch selection has not really changed, location has. Here are heatmaps for the last season and this season from Baseball Savant (different source than the previous chart, but I think it shows the trend more clearly):



Down and away is not a new or surprising way to attack a hitter, but pitchers have really exploited it against Heyward thus far in 2015, and for good reason, it's working. Moreover, Heyward has helped them out by swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone than he has in each of the previous two seasons, while making less or at least a similar amount of contact:

Season O-Swing% O-Contact%
2013 29.6 72.4
2014 28.4 69.9
2015 30.4 69.2

The next question to ask is: is there anything that might lead pitchers to target this area more this year? Recall that Heyward was hit in the face with a pitch in August of 2013, which is why he now has a face-guard on his helmet. You might think that this would make pitchers throw inside more, trying to instill fear, but as is evident this has not been the case. One thing of note is that Heyward appears to be standing farther from the plate and in a different stance this season than he did/used last season:

These are not cherry picked images. They are the images that I found had the clearest look at where he is in the box (i.e., decent center field camera spot). In any case, what they appear to show is that Heyward is standing farther from the plate this year. His open stance in 2014 clouds the perception a little bit, but looking at his back foot shows that he is further away this year. His location (and stance) in the batter's box this year may be exposing the outer half of the plate more than last year and pitchers have noticed and are taking advantage. The extent to which this change has anything to do with the face injury is not clear for a couple of reasons. First, he is closer to the plate in 2014, the year immediately following the injury, and second, his current stance more closely resembles how he stood in 2013 before getting hit in the face:

With this in mind, it could be that Heyward and Cardinals' hitting coach John Mabry are trying to get back to the ways things were in 2013, when he posted a 120 wRC+. If so, this adjustment back to the old batting stance could be a contributor to the difficulties he has been experiencing in the early going this season.

Bad months happen and the expectation remains that Heyward will produce at a solid rate the rest of the way. But if that is going to be the case he will need to be able to drive these pitches that pitchers are throwing low and away from him. Refining the adjustment to his stance at the plate, getting comfortable playing in St. Louis, ignoring the pressure of a contract-year, and some good old fashioned BABIP regression should get him back on the positive side of the WAR charts soon. Otherwise the trade that at once looked like a steal for the Cardinals, will start to look like more of a steal for the Braves.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant.

Chris Teeter is a featured writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. He is also a contributor at BP Boston. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.