The Cubs achieved the long-awaited World Series Championship in 2016 and have struggled to replicate the same kind of success since then. The core of the team remains intact, but their futures are unknown. Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Anthony Rizzo are all approaching free agency and their futures with the team remain unknown. You might be surprised to hear that the Cubs’ best position player in 2020 was Jason Heyward. After disappointing years in Chicago, he may have finally found something that could stick.
Hitting the Fastball
One thing that Jason Heyward does so well is hit the fastball. Over two seasons, 2018-2019, Heyward compiled over 28 runs on the fastball according to baseball savant. He had an xwOBA approaching .370 and a hard-hit rate just under 40%. Heyward excels in making contact inside the strike zone. He had a zone contact rate of 88% over lose two seasons, well above league average. League-wide, 52% of fastballs were thrown inside the strike zone over those two seasons. It would make sense why Heyward sees great results on fastballs. They are the most common pitch to be thrown in the strike zone, and he likes to hit balls in the strike zone more than the average player. It’s a match made in heaven.
Heyward doesn’t fare as well against breaking balls and off-speed pitches. From 2015 to 2019, the highest xwOBA he registered against either group of pitchers was .307. Now, it’s not uncommon for players to be significantly worse against off-speed and breaking stuff. Heyward struggles against curveballs. He’s racked up -11 runs of value from 2018-2019 on curveballs. While Heyward doesn’t whiff on a high rate of curveballs, he just struggled to hit the ball in the air against the pitch. What if I told you that everything I just described, wouldn’t happen in 2020?
That’s right, in 2020, Heyward had a negative value against fastballs and a positive value against curveballs! Insert confused guy reaction meme here. Against four-seam fastballs, Heyward accumulated -1 runs of value but 5 runs of value against the curveball. Makes no sense, but if you take a deeper look, Heyward was quite good against both types of pitches. He had the highest xwOBA and Hard-Hit rate of his career against fastballs. He saw about 45% of the fastball he saw in 2018 so while the sample size is smaller, it’s not worth disregarding. Against curveballs, he had a .453 xwOBA and a 50% hard-hit rate. He saw 113 curveballs during the year which is only about 80 less than the number he saw in 2018. It is about 150 less than he saw in 2019. Heyward’s new approach had a large impact on his ability to handle both pitch types.
The Right Approach
Heyward has maintained a solid OBP over the years because of his ability to put the ball in play and walk at an average rate. In 2019, he shifted his approach, sacrificing some contact by striking out more to also walk more. It worked, as he saw his highest OBP since 2015. He built on that even more going into 2020. Heyward’s strikeout reached 20% for the first time since 2012. He also had a 16% walk rate and a .392 OBP. Heyward decided to just start swinging less all across the board. His swing rate dropped dramatically, both his O-Swing% and Z-Swing% fell by a lot as well. They all fell by 9%.
Heyward wanted to be more selective to find and hunt his pitches more. He still had an 85% zone contact rating, which is why his peripheral statistics on fastballs were still very good. He also made a concerted effort to keep the ball off of the ground more. His line-drive rate was the highest of his career. He created a more consistent swing and a tighter launch angle for line drives. While his average exit velocity and hard-hit rates don’t scream elite production, his .385 xwOBA does. That number is fueled by his great walk rate, and a steady number of line drives.
The thing to look for as Heyward moves in the season in this area is that he will swing more; but is he still willing to take the strikeouts to get better swings? Heyward developed a more modern approach to hitting and saw great benefits to it. It was still a small sample size and Heyward will need to continue to show that he’s willing to sacrifice swings and contact to get on base and get his best swing off. Keep an eye on his swing%, and his line drive rate as the season progresses. Heyward posted the highest wRC+ of his Cubs career and the best rate fWAR and rWAR since 2015. To keep that going, pay attention to the discipline.
The Defense is Still There
I don’t think I’d be doing my job if I didn’t talk about defense when we discuss Jason Heyward. He’s made himself a staple of great defense in the right field. Guys like Mookie Betts and Aaron Judge come to mind as the best defenders in right field today. For years, it was Heyward as the premier defender in the notoriously offense-heavy position. What makes Heyward so good isn’t he isn’t relying on elite athleticism. He relies on average arm and intelligence of the field to make smart defensive plays.
Heyward hasn’t been blazingly fast for the Cubs in his career. His highest percentile ranking of sprint speed in his career was 67. Which is a good sign for him and whoever has him on their fantasy team because he’ll be able to age well in the right field. Age isn’t too big of a concern for Heyward who is turning just 32, will be able to last several more years in right field. Unless something changes dramatically, Heyward can probably still be seen as a good defender — but maybe not the +15 run defender he once was.
Heyward is excellent at playing the deep part of right field in Wrigley. Since 2016, Heyward has been worth 16 outs above average on balls he has to move back on. That’s a helpful skill playing in Wrigley field being able to play that corner well. Heyward has never had an elite arm, but his range in right field is well above average to cover the areas that center fielders will have less responsibility. Heyward even played 600 innings in center in 2019 and did an admirable job.
Moving forward, Heyward should still be slotted in right field with an above-average defensive profile, but will he be staying in Chicago?
Is He Staying in Chicago?
As already mentioned, the Cubs core could be leaving next year. They already traded away Yu Darvish in the off-season and have dangled Kris Bryant for years. They haven’t been able to work out an extension for Anthony Rizzo before opening day and will likely be unable to do so throughout the year. Heyward has been unlikely to be traded because he is owed a lot of money and still has two more years beyond this season. However, if he continues to produce offensively, a team may be willing to bring Heyward on if the Cubs want to free up some money to keep some of their core together.
While this isn’t a high possibility as the Cubs would have to eat a large part of the contract, it’s one worth exploring for what it means for Heyward. We’ll start by assuming he stays in Chicago. We know what he has done in that park, and his new approach and swing will play in that park. He pulled the ball at a much higher rate than he ever had as a Cub, which is a good sign for him as well. It also makes it imperative to keep the ball off of the ground. Thinking about stadiums that are good for lefty pull hitters, a trip to the AL East makes some sense for Heyward’s approach.
While Boston has Hunter Renfroe, Enrique Hernandez, and Franchy Cordero capable of playing right field, all three of them may struggle, as they don’t have long track records of success. He could handle the defensive responsibilities of an unusual right field, and the short right-field wall in the corner could benefit Heyward’s new line drive-focused approach. He could see an uptick in home runs in Fenway.
Even if Heyward does make some sense in terms of fit with the Red Sox, he probably doesn’t make a lot of sense financially. The Red Sox wouldn’t give generational-right-fielder the payday he deserves, not much says they’ll want to pay Jason Heyward the amount of money he is making. I’d be shocked if he ends up in Boston soon, but I wouldn’t rule them out as a possibility if things aren’t shaping up the way they thought.
Another team to look out for is Washington Nationals. They signed Kyle Schwarber to a one-year deal this past off-season and have told Juan Soto he will be playing right-field for them at least this year. This is not an immediate fit, as Andrew Stevenson is more than a serviceable fourth outfielder, but the long-term appeal could be there. Soto’s defense still has a lot of questions, and his arm isn’t one that can play as a normal right field standard. If Schwarber struggles and the Nationals aren’t comfortable keeping Soto in right, then Heyward could fill that void. The team’s outfield defense was shaky in 2020 but Victor Robles should be able to regain his defensive form. A Robles/Heyward combo in the outfield could be a lot of fun. As a hitter, there’s not a unique advantage to being a left-handed-hitter in that park but the large right-center-field wall may take some power from Heyward if he isn’t able to pull the ball down the corner.
For now, Heyward will remain in Chicago. I’ll be patiently waiting to see what he can bring to the plate while enjoying what he can do in the field. Hopefully, that fun former prospect can regain his form.
Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@Jmrgraphics3 on IG)