Jason Heyward Hastened Wayward, Now Makin’ Hay…Word

Jason Heyward hasn’t exactly had what you’d call a banner half for the Cubs here in 2016. Never mind that his defense in right — and occasionally center — has been nothing short of revelatory for those of us used to seeing guys out there who were either playing the corner on a work-study basis or who were mailing it in to some extent. No one should have been expecting 30 homers or anything, but a league-average bat wasn’t too big an ask.

And league average Heyward has not been, slashing .243/.331/.337 with only 4 home runs. Those numbers are well below his career marks and have him at a wRC+ of 83, which means he’s been about 17 percent worse than the standard major league hitter. While his glove and his legs have compensated for his bat en route to 1.5 fWAR, you’d still like to see a little more impact at the plate. In other words, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

I had written about the changes in Heyward’s mechanics a couple months ago and much more has been made of them since. Tom Verducci was quoted in that piece and he recently covered the topic again for SI, essentially saying that the Cubs signed a graduate of the Patches O’Houlihan School of Hitting. Okay, so Dooch only mentioned “dip and dive” and not dodge, duck, and dodge. He was even kinda doom and gloom on the outlook for the rest of the season, and even the rest of Heyward’s career, for that matter.

The baseball scribe obviously isn’t the only one expressing worry, though he’s at least got some more advanced data to back it up and isn’t just grabbing his pitchfork and joining the angry mob to scream, “Bust!” On the other side of that coin are the folks who have been chalking the sub-par results to bad luck. Citing BABIP without context can get you into sabermetric quicksand, which is exactly where you’ll get by arguing that Heyward’s .292 BABIP bears any notable blame for his woes.

If anything, the opposite is true. Which is to say that his bad mechanics have led to more soft and less hard contact, thus leaving Heyward less likely to find gaps in the field. He’s been rolling over far too often and producing weak grounders to the right side and just isn’t barreling pitches up with any regularity. Simply put, he’s creating his own bad luck.

After repeatedly penciling Heyward into the number two spot — very metaphorically accurate — in the order through most of the first half, Joe Maddon finally relented to the armchair managers and dropped the scuffling hitter lower in the order. While Maddon obviously doesn’t care what the fans think of his lineup card, he did have to make some changes. And small though the sample may be, Heyward actually appears to be performing better in the six-hole.

In fact, he’s been posting significantly better numbers since late June. Who’s ready for some fun with arbitrary sample sizes? Yeah? Alright, here we go.

Since June 26, Heyward is slashing .304/.371/.393 with a matching set of 9.7 percent walk and strikeout rates. He’s posted a 108 wRC+ in that time and his BABIP is a hearty .340, thanks in part to a hard-hit rate of 30 percent (season average is 23.8 percent). If we pare the sample down further to include just July, the slash sits at .300/.378/.425 with a 118 wRC+ despite a more sustainable .314 BABIP.

And while we’re already playing with analytical fire, let’s go ahead and throw some gasoline on it by looking specifically at the numbers Heyward has posted since being moved down in the order on July 4. Call it Independence from Crappy Numbers Day. It’s only seven games, but he’s slashed .357/.438/.500 with a 154 wRC+ and a very robust .370 BABIP. The hard-hit percentage has remained around 30, but the soft-hit balls were down to only 18.5 percent (season 28.2).

Just as encouraging is the strikeout rate. While his season K-rate is at 17.7 percent, it’s an almost imperceptible 3.1 of late. Sure, we’re only looking at a week’s worth of games, but striking out only once in 28 at-bats is pretty not bad. Heyward has been making a good deal more contact, and better contact to boot, recently. And now he’s got some time to reset things a little and maybe even perform a little preventive maintenance on those swing mechanics.

Not that we’ll see any kind of significant overhaul in a handful of days, just that some time away from the game may allow Heyward to refocus to an extent. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’ll help him to lose focus on trying to live up to the contract he signed in the offseason. The guy just hasn’t looked comfortable at the plate for much of the season, though it seems as if he’s settled into more of a groove lately. Or maybe that’s just confirmation bias getting the best of me.

Then again, Luis Medina over at Bleacher Nation wrote about the progressive improvements of Heyward’s offense in the first half, so maybe I’m not just seeing things. And from everything my eyes and my gut and the stats are telling me, a second-half surge could well be in order. Heck, even a little ripple of improvement could push Heyward’s production to that of a league-average hitter.

Not good enough, you say? It’s far from unreasonable to expect more than just a .250 batting average and 10 home runs from a guy who’s clearly capable of much more, but when you pair even mediocre offensive numbers to that defense prowess you’ve got a really nice ballplayer.

There’s also the matter of recalibrated expectations, of which Heyward should be the beneficiary in the second half. He’s hit rock bottom in many fans’ eyes, so his output moving forward will naturally look better by comparison. Is that accurate or appropriate? Who cares, that’s the way things are going to be. And if the big right fielder can get right, it’s going to be hard for opposing pitchers to deal with the bottom of the Cubs’ order down the stretch.

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