Hey, Cubs Insider readers, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret here. I don’t want the other blogs to hear it and steal my analysis, though, so you’ve got to lean in really close. Closer. Just a liiiitle closer…
JASON HEYWARD HAS BEEN REALLY BAD AT THE PLATE THIS SEASON.
Shoot, I think I might have written that too loudly. Oh well, I’m sure someone else out there is smart enough to have figured that out too. Heyward wasn’t given that big contract for his bat alone, but his offensive production has been really disappointing nonetheless. And that’s not just fans; J-Hey himself has been noticeably frustrated out there.[beautifulquote align=”right”]Inevitable comps to Starlin Castro’s benching last season even cropped up.[/beautifulquote]
It was getting to the point where people were having serious conversations about whether Heyward should even be in the starting lineup at all, let alone in the playoffs. And when Maddon sat his right fielder for the Cubs’ last game in Milwaukee and all three in Denver, the inevitable comps to Starlin Castro’s benching last season began to crop up. Never mind the vastly different situations for both the players and their teams, the talk was there.
All the while, detractors and apologists drooled over the possibilities should Heyward regress back to his mean and turn into a solid hitter once again. Might we have seen the start of such an upward trend in the time since the maligned outfielder returned to the lineup?
This might seem a little weird, but I wanted to look at Heyward’s batted-ball velocity in the six games prior to his brief benching. With the exception of a few plays for which such data was not available, here are the speeds of balls in play and their results:
That’s 3-for-16 (.188) on balls in play with an average velo of 81.75 mph, in case you were wondering. Overall, Heyward was 4-for-21 (.190) in that stretch, with an additional hit on an infield single to third against the Cardinals. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the exact hit, so I’m only guessing at the fact that it was probably not hit hard (lots of infield hits are rollers).
The BABIP is really bad all on its own, but then you see that two of those hits came on balls that were hit 48 and 26 mph and you want to bang your head against a wall. This game makes no sense! And that’s just you and me. How do you think Heyward feels?
Some of this, as I’ve said over and over again when it comes to bad BABIP, is bad luck. More of it is bad hitting. I’m reluctant to believe that a few games off could provide the kind of recalibration necessary to turn around a season and it’s kind of crazy to even entertain the thought. Still, Heyward really seems to be doing things differently since the start of the San Diego series.
Here are his results on batted balls in the six games since the mini-exile:
That’s 8-for-20 (.400) with an average velo of 87.45 mph and 8-for-23 (.348) overall. You can’t stake everything on exit velocity, particularly since you can see a ball hit 111 turn into a DP while a dribbler at 26 earns a hit. That said, harder-hit balls are more likely to fall and Heyward is clearly making better contact of late. Even those last two outs in Sunday’s game featured some really hard-hit balls (he hammered a foul to right in that last AB), something that’s becoming more evident of late.[beautifulquote align=”right”]It’s even better to see Heyward getting out of that tendency to roll grounders over on the infield.[/beautifulquote]
One other item of note is where Heyward’s hitting the ball, namely that he’s going the other way a bit more. In the earlier sample, 8 balls went to the pull field, 2 up the middle, and 6 went oppo. The second group, on the other hand, saw 8 balls pulled, 6 up the middle, and 6 oppo. Not a huge shift, to be sure, but it’s nice to see him spreading things around.
It’s even better to see Heyward getting out of that maddening tendency to roll grounders over on the infield. In that first group, 8 of the 16 balls in play remained on the infield, with 7 on the ground and 5 going to the pitcher or second baseman. Contrast that to the second group, in which only 7 balls remained in the infield. Of those, only 4 stayed on the ground and only 3 went to second or the pitcher.
Oh, that group also includes a streak of hits in five consecutive at-bats that spanned the three games in LA.
Again, we’re talking about two six-game sets sandwiched around a four-game break. That’s hardly a basis for reasonable statistical analysis, but it makes for an interesting topic of general conversation. More than that, though, it provides a kernel of hope that Jason Heyward can and is really turning things in the right direction. I don’t want to get into speculation about whether a return to form would result in a return to the two-hole, only that it would mean big things for the Cubs in October.
Even if Heyward only becomes a .250 hitter the rest of the way, you’re looking at something approaching a .333 OBP. That may not sound like much, just getting on base a couple more times. But when you’re talking about giving an excellent baserunner even one or two more chances when the games really mean something, those little bits of leverage can really come in handy.
And I’ve gotta tell you, I really want to to see Heyward break through for his own sake. Yeah, sure, the team’s results are the most important thing at the end of the day. It’s just that the dude has been twisting himself in knots trying to fight through this season-long slump. While I’ve been among legions of those who’ve lamented his struggles, I’d be willing to guarantee you the big right fielder has been his own harshest critic.
Though I doubt he would ever admit to it, I believe the pressing and the underwhelming results have caused somewhat of a chicken-or-egg cycle of futility. So whether the improved numbers are due to a break in the clouds or Heyward putting new batteries in the flashlight, the important thing is that me may be starting to shine.
For more on how Heyward’s doing what he’s going, check out this post on eliminating the toe-tap from his swing.