Jason Heyward’s 2016 season was dominated by two things: his public speaking skills and his dreadful season at the plate. After signing a $184 million deal with the Cubs in the 2016 offseason, Heyward posting a career-worst season wasn’t exactly encouraging for the North Siders. But after an offseason spent on a major swing overhaul, the early returns are promising for Heyward.
Heyward posted his worst season since his sophomore season in 2016. Both seasons he was a near replacement level player by measure of bWARP. However, in his 2011 season, he was much less extreme. Heyward was still developing as a defensive outfielder. By each measure from FRAA to DRS to UZR, Heyward’s 2011 season was either his worst or second worst defensive season of his career. This didn’t help when he posted a wRC+ of 96 as a rightfielder. Still, for 21-year-old Heyward, it wasn’t much of a concern going forward as we all knew he had a lot of room to grow.
Fast forward to the 2016 offseason and Heyward is as coveted as anyone on the free agent market. At this point in his career, Heyward had averaged 4.8 fWAR/600 PAs and 4.7 bWARP/600, and was about to enter his prime years. His reputation as an excellent defender with an advanced approach offered teams a premium player even if his offensive tools were still being fleshed out. That said, the promise in his bat from his days as a young player remained. Thus, after a contentious market for Heyward developed, he signed that large deal with the Cubs that includes two opt-outs after years three and four. Suffice to say, both sides would benefit from strong performance in the early years of the contract.
Heyward’s dismal season at the plate in 2016 has been beaten to death. Heyward fell below career lows in pretty much everything. His 72 wRC+ and .283 wOBA were both tens of points lower than his 2011 season (which held the prior title of “worst season”). His soft contact rate rose from a low of 24.3 percent to 27.0 percent and his hard hit rate tied a career low of 26.4 percent. His exit velocity reflected, falling to an average of 87.4. Pair that with his suboptimal launch angles shown below and you have a batter with serious issues. The only positive nuggets were that his high walk rate and low strikeout rate remained.
Despite that, Heyward played his role in the Cubs winning the World Series. His statistical performance aside, it still was a successful season for all parties involved.
Still, Heyward spent his offseason in the cage trying to rebuild himself at the plate. When video of his new swing hit the internet, it went viral. Everyone wanted to see the $184 million-man in the cage.
Now, as we finish the second week of the season, we can begin to see the track Heyward is on in his redevelopment. With only 30 plate appearances through seven games, the sample isn’t large. However, it’s easy to see that his feel for hitting has reappeared through a variety of angles.
First off, Heyward is just plain hitting the ball harder. So far, he has only seen a slight dip in soft contact rate of 0.9 percentage points, but his hard hit rate is up to what would be the best of his career since his rookie year, which clocked in at 38.8 percent. This rise is at the expense of his medium contact rate, which is down to 39.1 percent. On top of that, his average exit velocity per hit has risen to over 89 mph. Over his 20 observed balls in play, Heyward has four balls over 100 mph in exit velocity. As Travis Sawchik detailed, he even had an entire game of six plate appearances where he posted exit velocities of 96 mph or greater in each.
Second, he just plain looks better. A huge emphasis was placed on Heyward’s hands. Ken Rosenthal went into detail with Cubs coaches in an effort to understand the goals behind the process and one of the big points of emphasis was placed on his hands. Heyward, thus far, has managed to keep his hands off his body in that lowered position and drive the ball. He’s now able to consistently get good wood on pitches like he wasn’t able to last year.
It’s certainly early in the season and we cannot say anything for certain, yet. But, the early signs this season are promising for Heyward. As the season goes on and rates begin to stabilize, everyone will get a more clear idea about where Heyward has re-positioned himself as an offensive player. However, with these early nuggets, it’s plausible to start feeling some optimism.
Anthony Rescan is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.