Jason Heyward couldn’t beat the Cubs, so he joined them as the most coveted free agent position player of his class. Heyward spurned both the Cardinals, who had pried the Atlanta native free from the only organization he’d ever known in a big 2015 trade, and the Nationals to take less money from the Cubs because he felt Chicago was a better fit personally and professionally.
I understand not everyone reading this has the same opinion of Heyward’s value, but it’s impossible to deny his impact as a leader on that title team. And if you feel the word “albatross” burbling its way from your brain to either your lips or your keyboard, consider stifling that response and looking a little more closely at the team’s payroll.
That aside, the fact of the matter is that the Cubs are no longer a team on the brink of greatness just waiting for one player, or even two or three, to push them over the edge. Most view them as also-rans in a weak division, a .500 club that is merely dog-paddling through the season as some sort of re[insert verb here] takes place under Jed Hoyer’s watch.
That’s just fine with Heyward.
“I love that we are not being picked to win,” the right fielder said Wednesday at camp. “Preseason numbers and picks and whatnot don’t mean anything. We have the best fans in baseball. That is not a dig at anyone else. The fans ride the highs and lows.
“We just have to block out that noise and come to the ballpark every day and work hard. The great thing about our fans is they are right there good or bad waiting for a better moment.”
How much actual noise will be coming from fans in the stands at Wrigley is yet to be determined, but increasingly promising data on COVID-19 and the vaccines aimed at stopping it paint a rosy picture. It’s easy to believe people will be back in ballparks to some extent this summer, perhaps in greater numbers as the season goes along.
But what Heyward really means is the mental noise from expectations, particularly those longtime Cubs whose deals are ending or those who’ve joined the team on one-year contracts. He knows a little something about showing out in a walk year, as evidenced by a career-high 5.6 fWAR and .293 average in 2015, so you can understand why he’d be confident in his teammates heading into this season.
Heyward is also confident in himself after his fourth consecutive season of offensive improvement resulted in what was arguably the best season of his career. His 131 wRC+, .368 wOBA, and .848 OPS were all second to highs set his rookie season, while his 1.8 fWAR becomes a career-best 5.86 when extrapolated out over the same 589 plate appearances he made in 2019.
Even if that requires a few dubious assumptions based on a 2020 season that should not otherwise be the foundation for analysis, it’s clear Heyward has continued to improve since coming to Chicago.
“Last year and every year I just have got more comfortable with the system,” Heyward said. “I had some slow starts that eventually came out OK, but initially, it was, ‘Hey let’s look at the numbers.’ There were times that I did well and I wasn’t starting the next day. That would be confusing for someone like me. You learn that you have to fit into a system. I think I have a pretty good grasp on that now.”
I’d posit that it’s more than just fitting into the Cubs’ system that has benefited Heyward, that he’s actually had to grow into a new identity that was separate from the Braves. The Atlanta-area native was billed as the next Hank Aaron as he came up through their system and never really got the chance to be his own person. I have no doubt that finally learning to be comfortable in his own skin, literally, has helped a great deal.
One part of his game that’s never been in question is his defense, which the Cubs may have to rely upon more than ever behind a starting rotation that focuses a lot more on pitching to contact than racking up swings and misses.
“I love that, to be honest,” Heyward said. “There’s times where the game can get boring in right field. I think our guys pitch to contact, but they pitch to smart contact. These guys pitch to get outs, not pitch to punch people out and strike out. They pitch to play the game and read the game. I think being able to do that on the fly is a special thing.
“And that’s something you’re going to actually need when it comes down to a division like ours, where you’re going to see guys over and over again. And it’s going to come down to the wire when you talk about the division race.”
That could well be the case and if things are indeed as tight as Heyward predicts, having his elite glove and improved bat in the lineup may make all the difference.