Despite maintaining a status as perhaps the best position player available in last winter's free agent class, the reviews were still somewhat mixed when the Chicago Cubs signed Jason Heyward to a massive eight-year, $184 million deal. A fairly intricate deal with multiple opt-outs, some criticized the deal for a player who has been far more lauded for his defense rather than what he brings to the plate. Nonetheless, the Cubs needed to improve their contact throughout the lineup and felt the deal for Heyward helped them to further that pursuit.
However, the yelling from critics of the deal became far more vociferous as Heyward got off to the slowest of starts, which wasn't exactly helped by an early wrist injury and the rib/hip contusion he suffered on that absurd catch in San Francisco. And while Heyward's numbers on the year still don't exactly lend themselves to screams of support for the gargantuan pact, he's certainly beginning to show signs of the player the Cubs thought they were getting.
Those aren't exactly numbers that cry out in defense of the Heyward contract. While his walk rate is up a touch, that strikeout rate would represent his highest mark since 2012. His BABIP hasn't done him too many favors; his average is at its lowest since 2011, while his overall on-base percentage is down 34 points from last year's mark. Heyward has never developed into the power hitter that some projected him to be, but that ISO is quite low even by his standards. If one were to look at those overall numbers, and many have, it would be an easy thing to declare him a disappointment through these first few months of the contract.
Before we get to the month of June, which has been particularly encouraging, there are certainly some interesting trends worth exploring. The first are his batted ball tendencies:
Again, this is the total body of work in 2016, so it doesn't reflect the improvement that has taken place throughout the season. One would think that the decreased ground ball percentage, and slightly increased line drive percentage, would be something that worked in his favor. However, with the increase in soft contact, that obviously has not been the case. An uptick in hacks at offspeed pitches could potentially be responsible for that development. Regardless of the case, it certainly hasn't worked in his favor. Even if the approach has largely remained the same:
The fact that his swing tendencies, in terms of location, have remained similar to previous years in his career have helped to sustain the life of optimism for Jason Heyward's performance. And given what he's turned in thus far in June, and what it could mean for him moving forward, there are likely quite a few "I told you so's" being doled out across the baseball landscape.
How much explaining does this really need? Heyward is finally finding the holes, as illustrated by his uptick in BABIP, but he is also hitting for more power (which we'll get to in a moment). That ISO is a far, far cry from where he was just a few short weeks ago. As a result, he's reaching base at a clip that we've become far more accustomed to seeing from Heyward. While that strikeout rate is up a touch in the month, and the walk rate is slightly down, it's hardly anything to be concerned with. As illustrated over at Brooks, he's swinging at more fastballs and more breaking pitches, while swinging at significantly fewer offspeed pitches, during the month.
Swinging at more hard stuff and more breaking pitches certainly lends itself to making harder contact, which is exactly what Heyward is doing during this much-improved month of June. He's making hard contact 38.5 percent of the time, which is up almost 17 full points from the month of May. Subsequently, his soft contact rate is down to 25.9 percent, which represents an almost 14 point decrease from the previous month. He's still sporting a relatively high ground ball rate (at about 51%) and a somewhat high mark in regard to his FB% (33.3%), but when you combine it with the harder contact that Heyward is currently making, it becomes less of a concern.
He's always been a guy with a penchant for putting the ball on the ground. However, in doing so this year, he was hitting into many outs because of his tendency for soft contact. As he continues to gain his comfort on the North Side and perhaps achieves full health (because one would have to think that there was something lingering with that wrist early on), Heyward's June performance should become much more of the norm than his April or May was. And, as such, we should have far less reason to worry about whether or not the Chicago Cubs made a colossal mistake in bringing him in.
Which they haven't. He's already been an elite-level fielder, as he is often pitched, but as his bat continues to heat up with the summer months, the justification will be there for Theo Epstein and this front office regarding their prized right fielder.
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.