Last off-season, the Cubs signed Jason Heyward to a seven-year deal. The catch: They wanted him for primarily for his defense. And a good thing, too, because his bat practically disappeared in 2016. This season, the bat is still lousy and yet, it’s better than his career-worst 2016.
Before we start analyzing, let’s get a baseline. Here are Heyward's stats, from 2015 to the present:
Jason Heyward Swing and Contact - 2015-17
Where did it go wrong for the 2010 Rookie of the Year? His 2016 wOBA and wRC+ are career worsts for him. His strikeout percentage also increased by nearly one percentage point, and while that isn’t his career worst, it does give us an idea that he was swinging at more pitches without making contact. His overall contact remains unchanged, but if you break it down, he made less contact at pitches inside the zone and more on those outside — an exchange that no hitter wants to make.
The rest of his stats show a downward trendline but none of them are the worst of his career — that dubious honor, across the board, goes to his disastrous 2011 season.
So we have three suspects in trying to figure out why Heyward was an offensive trainwreck. First of, his BABIP. Heyward's 2016 BABIP was 35 percentage points below his career mark of .301. This can mean two things: Either Heyward was really unlucky, or he was hitting balls that the defense could more easily field for some reason.
According to FanGraphs’ data, Heyward hit the ball into play against the shift 190 times last season. Does his batted ball data show any reason the shift might’ve been particularly effective?
Heyward Batted Ball Distribution
Well, between 2015 and 2016 his pull percentage was around 40 percent, meaning that shifting did not seem like a crazy idea. Heyward is a pull hitter, and when you add that he is also a heavy groundball hitter (49.3 percent career ground ball rate), the strategy just writes itself.
But if defensive shifts were the only reason for his decline, it should have continued into 2017. Heyward is pulling the ball even more often, at exactly 50 percent, while maintaining his ground ball rate at 47.9 percent.
Instead, his BABIP and wOBA have recovered, if not to the extent of previous seasons. This just seems strange. As a hitter, he hasn’t made any major changes, and yet his offensive values are much better than they were last season. Furthermore, FanGraphs’s projections are optimistic that he will improve to league average.
Maybe the key lies in his approach at the plate. Earlier this year, Ken Rosenthal reported that Heyward had worked arduously during the offseason to deconstruct and rebuild his swing — no easy feat but a necessary one for many struggling hitters. The changes he's implemented appear to have been successful.
If we look at his swing percentages, we see the following:
Heyward has become more aggressive at the plate and is swinging at more pitches in the zone. However, he has also attacked pitches below the strike zone. His aggressiveness has caused his pitch recognition at the bottom of the strike zone to take a tumble. But Heyward will gladly take this exchange as his rate stats indicate that he has improved.
Likewise, he has also made more contact when swinging at pitches - especially at those located in the upper half of the strike zone. Though not exactly part of the fly ball revolution, Heyward is hitting the ball more in the air (35.4 fly ball percent). This is not enough to put him in the same league as Justin Turner, J.D. Martinez, and Josh Donaldson, but it's still a noteworthy improvement.
Heyward may not be the offensive beast that he was projected to be at the start of his career. He may not even reach the median offensive performance that fans dreamed of when he debuted. But he has managed to survive in the majors thanks to a philosophical change in player evaluation. Having taken the time off to rework his swing, he may just barely become a better-than-average hitter that excels at defense — something the Cubs will gladly welcome.
Stats current through games of June 8th, 2017
Martin Alonso writes for Beyond the Box Score and BP Bronx and is contantly geeking out over baseball and Star Wars. You can find him on Twitter at @martnar.