The signing of outfielder Jason Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million deal has, without question, been one of the worst decisions that the Chicago Cubs front office has made this decade.
When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer signed Heyward during the 2015-16 offseason, the deal was touted as a further step in the right direction for a team that was on the cusp of going to the World Series (if you recall, the Mets swept the Cubs in the 2015 NLCS).
The rationale behind the signing was simple. Heyward was coming off of one of the best offensive seasons of his career, slashing .293/.359/.439 (121 wRC+) with 13 home runs and 60 runs batted in over 610 plate appearances. In addition to his offensive numbers being in the approximately top-quarter of the league that year, Heyward was also the fourth-best defensive outfielder, rating out as 11.3 defensive runs above average there.
All in all, Heyward was worth 5.6 fWAR in 2015. And, considering he was going into just his age-26 season the following year, the Cubs had every reason to believe that Heyward would be the piece to take them to a World Series title.
While Heyward was indeed part of the Cubs’ World Series run in 2016, he played far from an integral role. Immediately following a year in which he produced a career-high fWAR, Heyward brought out the worst within himself. His defense remained excellent — at 9.6 runs above-average — but his offense tanked to the worst possible degree. He hit just .230/.306/.325 (72 wRC+) in 2016, and he totaled a meager 1.0 fWAR.
A second season of Heyward with a bad bat brought about acceptance amongst the populous. People decided that this is who Heyward was — a below-average hitter with just enough defensive contributions to make him worth a win or two overall. And for two seasons, there was some truth to that.
But, now, a glimpse of pre-Cubs Jason Heyward has returned.
I issue caution when saying this, but Heyward’s bat has certainly been better in 2018 than at any previous time with the Cubs; even so, it’s still hovering right around league-average. Over 475 plate appearances, Heyward has slashed .272/.337/.400 (101 wRC+) with eight home runs and runs batted in. He’s also been worth 4.2 runs above average on the bases, giving him a total of 4.6 runs above average on offense this year; this is the first time that Heyward has been above-league-average offensively since joining the Cubs.
He’s still not at pre-Cubs levels. In his last season prior to signing the gigantic deal, he was worth +22.2 runs above-average on offense. Being worth +4.6 run is a far cry from that phenomenal offensive production, but it’s certainly better than his -18.6 and -7.9 runs above average marks over the past two years, respectively.
In June, Cubs manager Joe Maddon provided an explanation for Heyward’s improved offensive capabilities, via the Chicago Tribune:
“His setup is entirely different. And with that, he’s making a better pass at the baseball. That’s it. Swear to God. That’s it. Nothing new or different from him. He’s just setting up better. . .You can see the ball come off the bat. It’s snapping. There’s no push in his swing. It’s all snap. That’s the difference. I’m not trying to be coy about it. It’s exactly what’s going on.”
If Heyward’s improvements are truly due to a “better setup,” then he’s certainly reaping major benefits. He has a .322 wOBA this season, but according to Baseball Savant’s Statcast, his batted ball profile suggests that he should have a .335 wOBA. A .335 wOBA estimates out to a 109 wRC+.
Heyward’s 88.2 mph exit velocity is also above the MLB-average for the first time in three years, though his average launch angle has dropped by just about 1 degree.
A potential explanation for Heyward’s offensive resurgence could be his health. He dealt with wrist issues throughout the 2016 season, and it’s very possible those may have lingered into 2017, despite them not being reported.
One suggestion that may corroborate this theory is Heyward’s performance with fastballs. In 2015, his last season before joining the Cubs, Heyward posted an average exit velocity on fastballs of 89.8 mph. That dropped to 87.6 mph in each of the last two seasons before spiking back up to 88.2 mph here in 2018.
These exit velocities may explain Heyward’s wildly fluctuating results against the fastball. In 2016, he posted a .296 wOBA against the fastball; in 2017, it was .329; and in 2018, it is .373. Pitchers, as a result, haven’t thrown him as many fastballs this year as they have in years past, but he still sees a heater nearly 60 percent of the time. Pitchers know that Heyward struggles with the soft stuff, but it’s better than struggling with everything.
As the Cubs gear up for another postseason run, an improved Jason Heyward certainly wouldn’t hurt. They’ve proven that they can win without his bat, but it’s never a bad thing to have another solid bat in your lineup, especially with the excellent defense that Heyward can play.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.