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A look at Jason Heyward and whether his offensive improvement is sustainable

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The Cubs’ 2016 acquisition looks like a new man.

Jason Heyward on the hit parade against the Mets
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Heyward was almost my April player to watch. The peripherals looked so good, but I got gun shy. Plus, as I was digging into the numbers Kyle Schwarber’s hot start looked a lot more defensible, and so I decided to just keep an eye on Heyward.

Well, since coming off the disabled list on May 18 Heyward has been on fire. And it’s a lot more than just a few key hits, but I’m sure no one will mind if I start with a couple of web gems. I’m not sure what is more impressive honestly, the walkoff grand slam Heyward hit against Adam Morgan or the RBI single he roped off of Josh Hader to tie the game against the Brewers Monday night. You be the judge:

Jason Heyward’s walk off grand slam [VIDEO]:

And here is Heyward’s game-tying RBI single against Hader [VIDEO]. I think what I can say is that the 2016 and 2017 iteration of Jason Heyward doesn’t get either of those hits, so what’s different in 2018?

The numbers

Let’s start with some stats. I’ve got two version of stats here because while the season-long numbers are an improvement, the numbers since Heyward came off the disabled list are ridiculous.

Jason Heyward Key Stats

2010 623 .277 .393 .456 .335 134 20.5 14.6
2011 456 .227 .319 .389 .260 96 20.4 11.2
2012 651 .269 .335 .479 .319 121 23.3 8.9
2013 440 .254 .349 .427 .281 120 16.6 10.9
2014 649 .271 .351 .384 .308 109 15.1 10.3
2015 610 .293 .359 .439 .329 121 14.8 9.2
2016 592 .230 .306 .325 .266 71 15.7 9.1
2017 481 .259 .326 .389 .284 88 13.9 8.5
2018 185 .273 .333 .412 .292 102 10.8 8.1
post DL 2018 72 .338 .361 .515 .349 134 6.9 4.2
Career 4687 .262 .343 .412 .300 108 17.4 10.3
Jason Heyward key offensive stats Fangraphs

A few notes. Post-DL Jason Heyward is playing an unbelievable stretch of baseball. His .338/.369/.515 slash line is higher than any year in his career. His 134 wRC+ ties his greatest season to date. As a reminder, wRC+ operates off a baseline where 100 is the average MLB player. In other words, since coming off the DL Heyward is 34 percent better at creating runs than the average player.

Jason Heyward’s best offensive season by wRC+ was his rookie year, followed by 2012 with the Braves and 2015 with the Cardinals (both wRC+121). What he’s done since returning from the DL in 2018 matches his rookie year stats, which would be an incredible boon for the Cubs.

There are reasons to be skeptical that that number is sustainable. Specifically, Jason Heyward’s BABIP of .349 is higher than any season in his career, and he’s probably due for a regression. I should stress, however, that it’s hard to predict regressions and averages with Heyward (and frankly, he’s due for some improvement after 2016 & 2017). His numbers have bounced around dramatically during his time in the league. For example, I don’t think anyone expects his K percent to increase dramatically to 17.4 percent. So rather than looking at his career averages, which you can see in the chart above, I wanted to take a look at the peripherals to see if there was anything new this year that might indicate Cubs’ fans should expect a different result.

The peripherals

Ironically the reason that I wanted to write this piece originally was some really strong peripherals that don’t seem to be reflected in Heyward’s hot streak since coming off the DL. However, I’ll share them anyway. In 2018 Heyward’s fly ball rate and hard contact rate are quite a bit higher than his previous two years with the Cubs and his career averages, as you can see below. The fly ball rate is actually the highest it’s ever been. Perhaps that’s contributed to fewer of those 4-3 plays Cubs fans have seen over the last few years.

Jason Heyward Batted Ball Stats

Year PA GB% LD% FB% BABIP Soft% Med% Hard%
Year PA GB% LD% FB% BABIP Soft% Med% Hard%
2010 623 55.1 17.8 27.2 .335 15.2 45.9 38.8
2011 456 53.9 13.1 33.0 .260 33.0 38.9 28.1
2012 651 44.0 19.3 36.7 .319 16.7 48.9 34.5
2013 440 43.7 21.4 35.0 .281 22.9 47.4 29.7
2014 649 45.5 18.9 35.6 .308 24.3 49.4 26.4
2015 610 57.2 19.3 23.5 .329 22.4 48.5 29.1
2016 592 46.2 20.5 33.3 .266 27.0 46.4 26.4
2017 481 47.4 19.9 32.7 .284 25.7 48.8 25.5
2018 185 41.5 17.0 41.5 .292 20.9 47.3 31.8
post DL 2018 72 48.4 17.2 34.4 .349 15.6 57.8 26.6
Career 4687 48.8 18.8 32.4 .300 23.0 47.1 29.9
Jason Heyward Batted Ball Stats Fangraphs

There have been a lot of good articles on this, and in particular I’d encourage you to read this one, which takes a good look at the best- and worst-case scenario of each stat. It’s sort of hard to argue with the results right now, though.

I guess my take away here is that I’m cautiously optimistic that new JHey is for real, although I wouldn’t be shocked to see a bit of regression from what we’ve seen since he’s come off the DL.

The batting stance

Monday night, when Joe Maddon was asked about Jason Heyward, he gave a very simple answer [VIDEO]:

“He’s just swinging the bat really well. His set up’s entirely different and with that he’s making a better pass at the baseball, that’s it... There’s nothing new or different from him, he’s just set better. His hands... you can see how the ball’s coming off the bat, it’s kind of snapping. There’s no push in his swing it’s all snap right now and that’s the difference”

I decided to look back at how Heyward has set up over the years to see if I could see what Joe was talking about.

First, a look at Heyward’s setup during his highly successful 2010 rookie campaign:

Second, a look at Heyward’s more typical 2013 season, This is particularly interesting because in August of this year he suffered a broken jaw while at the plate. You can see that he switches helmets at about minute eight of this compilation:

While he continued to put up slightly above average offensive numbers in 2014 and 2015, those stats took a nosedive when he signed with the Cubs in 2016. Former Cub Mark DeRosa took a look at Heyward’s swing during an MLB Central segment in 2016 [VIDEO]:

I’ll forgive you if you don’t have 25 minutes to devote to video of Jason Heyward’s evolving swing plus the comparison to the above two videos, so I’ll cut to the chase with some screen shots.

Let’s start with 2010 JHey hitting his Opening Day home run against Carlos Zambrano:

2010 Jason Heyward takes Zambrano deep

Notice where the feet and hands are, it allows him to step slightly towards the plate and fully get his hands through the ball at the plate, sending this pitch over the fence:

2010 JHey makes contact

Now let’s take a look at 2016 Heyward, the first thing you’ll notice is how tight he is at the plate. His hands are forward and it’s going to hurt his ability to get a good swing on the ball:

2016 Jason Heyward

He has basically no chance of getting a hit here against Jacob deGrom. His timing is wrong and his full extension is way ahead of the plate. Let’s be honest, it’s not just deGrom, his chances of making contact against anyone are slim:

2016 JHey is way too late to make contact

Heyward’s swing in 2018 looks a lot more like early JHey than 2016 JHey. His stance and swing has... well, for lack of a better term, more snap to it. You can see him stepping towards the plate again now right before he swings as opposed to shifting away a bit. His hands are also starting back further and swinging through the ball more easily. And the results so far speak for themselves, two shots from his grand slam against the Phillies:

2018 JHey - his hands are back and feet positioned to step forward a bit.
2018 JHey hits a grand slam off Adam Morgan

I’ll leave you with the following from Statcast. In 2017 Jason Heyward ranked 264th in MLB in hard-hit balls (exit velocity over 95 mph) with 30.9 percent of hits. For comparison that put him just behind A.J. Ellis, Brett Gardner and Carlos Beltran. In 2018 JHey ranks 65th in MLB in hard hit balls with 43.1 percent of hits, for comparison that puts him in the neighborhood of Nomar Mazara, Jose Martinez and Nick Markakis. I think we can all agree that is much better company.

If that remarkable improvement is sustainable, the Cubs won’t need to go after a new bat at the trade deadline, they’ve got one in a substantially improved Jason Heyward.