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Jason Heyward is hitting like his old self

The right fielder is having his best season as a Cub.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

This is Jason Heyward’s fourth year with the Cubs, and his first three seasons were disappointing to say the least. Chicago inked Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million contract on the heels of a 5.6 win season by fWAR, but in his first three years, Heyward failed to match that mark.

Between 2016 and 2017, Heyward hit just .252/.322/.367 for an 85 wRC+. Heyward hasn’t been bad—his excellent defense makes him a valuable player regardless of how he’s hitting—but he hasn’t been player the Cubs thought they were getting. Heyward’s bat has slowly been improving, and now it looks like it’s back where it ought to be.

Through 81 games, Heyward is hitting .270/.361/.466 for a 114 wRC+. His 14 homers are the most he’s hit since 2013, and his walk rate of 12.3 is his highest since his rookie year. Overall, 2019 is shaping up to be his best offensive season since his days with the Braves.

As Craig Edwards of FanGraphs noted at the beginning of the season, Heyward’s walk rate rose as a result of newfound discipline on pitches at the edge of the zone. Through the end of April, Heyward was swinging at a career-low percentage of pitches outside the strike zone which had the dual benefit of drawing more walks and avoiding weak contact.

Since then, Heyward’s O-swing% has returned to a normal rate, and he’s drawn fewer walks lately. Even if he’s not the on-base machine he was at the outset of the season, Heyward has continued to hit the snot out of the ball and get it in the air.

Over the last two seasons, Heyward’s hard-hit rate has been eight percentage points higher than his first two seasons with the Cubs. Even if Heyward started hitting the ball harder last season, the results didn’t come until this year, and that’s because of the quality of contact. Heyward is hitting more balls into the air and fewer of the balls that he hits into the air are poorly hit. Heyward already has 12 batted balls of 110 mph or more which is just two away from his 2018 total and more than he had in 2017. His 12 barrels this year has also eclipsed last year’s total of 11.

One of the ways that Heyward has increased his quality of contact is by fixing a hole in his zone coverage. Through his career, pitchers have favored pitching him low and away, and the past few years, he hasn’t been able to do much with those pitches. This season, Heyward is doing a much better job of punishing those pitches down and away.

Covering the pitch down and away is something that he did in his pre-Cub days. If Heyward is indeed back to his old form, that would be welcome news for the Cubs. The NL Central is still tightly contested, and they’ll need all the offense they can get.

Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.