Thoughts on Jason Heyward
Coming out of 2016 it was all too easy to be as down as can be on Jason Heyward. No matter the situation it seemed as if the Chicago Cubs’ million dollar man always came up empty. Big game situations, little moments where a runner needed to be moved along, or even junk time where he flailed away like someone who had forgotten he was a professional hitter. This was the perception, and based on said perception Heyward quickly became a polarizing figure in Cubs fandom. Heading into 2017 that hasn’t changed much, if anything it could be argued that Heyward is even more disliked and has less expectations attached to him at this point.
The problem with thinking that Heyward is completely broken is that the numbers simply don’t play out such a scenario. Some of his numbers are legitimately scary, there’s no denying that. Posting a slash line of .230/.306/.325 does give one cause for concern. Those are the numbers that stick out when the idea of Jason Heyward being a bust is bandied about. They are far off the career mark for Heyward, a sign of definite regression. Comparatively in his career the left handed hitter posted a slash line of .262/.346/.415. Those are highly respectable numbers, and when added into his immense defensive prowess, and elite base running they help to explain why Heyward posted a WAR around 6 in more years than he didn’t before coming to the Cubs.
There are numbers that convince me that Heyward needs to make small adjustments in 2017 as opposed to large ones. One of the most voluminous complaints levied against Heyward in 2016 was his propensity for hitting into double plays. To my naked eye it seemed as if Heyward was constantly taking two Cubs out of the inning with one swing. However, Heyward only grounded into 13 double plays in 2016. That’s one less than he did in 2015 and in his 2010 Rookie of the Year campaign with the Atlanta Braves. In the in-between years Heyward did keep his GDP numbers in the low single digits, but it’s not as if his 2016 double play showing was a gross anomaly from the rest of his career.
Strikeouts were another area of concern that I, and everyone else, seemed to have about Heyward in 2016. Hold your horses though, because Heyward only struck out 93 times, which is well below his career average of 121 and consistent with his totals in two of the previous five years. The same is true of the free pass, as Heyward’s walk total of 54 isn’t as good as his career high of 91 in 2010, but it is right around the 50-60 average he displayed in five of the previous six years. Perhaps then the answer can be found in doubles, of which Heyward only had 27 in 2016. But, in the rest of his career he only reached 30 or more twice, and was right around the 27 mark year after year.
The one consistent with Heyward has been defense. If you are someone who is doubting the abilities of Jason Heyward as an elite defender then neither the eye test nor the numbers are on your side. His defensive runs saved of 17 in the year the Cubs won the World Series wasn’t the best of his career, but it fit right in with his numbers in that category across the span of his career. Same goes for his 5 assists or his fielding percentage of .991, and his total fielding runs above average of 29 is up there with his very best of years. Jason Heyward is an elite right fielder, there’s no questioning that fact.
None of this is to say that Heyward doesn’t need to fix things. He most certainly does, as evidenced by his 2016 slash line and the increasing frustration he exhibited as a hitter the more the year wore on. Heyward has spent most of his winter working on his swing. It is a work in progress, because he’s attempting to change something that became habit in 2016. Heyward is a highly skilled athlete, very intelligent, and possesses an incredible acumen for the game. There are many reasons the Cubs spent boatloads of money on him when he was a free agent. It is fair to say that Heyward didn’t live up to expectations in 2016. There are areas he knows that he needs to fix when it comes to his swing and his offensive approach. Panic is not the order of the day when it comes to Heyward as he moves through the 2017 season. Patience and a recognition that a world class athlete is working to right the ship are what every Cubs fan should be exhibiting. Jason Heyward is going to be a member of the Chicago Cubs for, hopefully, many more years and I feel confident proclaiming that each year will be progressively better than 2016.