Jason Heyward’s Not Making it Easy for Me to Defend Him

Of 161 qualified Major League batters, Jason Heyward’s Off (FanGraphs’ aggregate offensive metric) mark of -10.8 ranks him ahead of only seven. No other Cubs batter with at least 50 plate appearances has a lower number and the next closest is the -9.6 hung by John Lackey. That’s, uh, well…it’s bad. Really bad.

I’ve tried to figure out what’s wrong with Heyward’s swing and have theorized more than once that he’s just about to break out of this prolonged slump. First it was the slow-start theory, then the positive regression of his below-average BABIP. More recently, I had eschewed both of those in favor of his improved performance in July that may have been spurred by being dropped in the batting order.

It looked like I had some ground to stand on there for a while, as J-Hey slashed .343/.425/.486 through the first nine games of the month. In the 11 games since, however, the floor dropped from beneath my rationale in the form of an .079/.146/.105 slash with a .124 wOBA and a wRC+ of -35. Negative thirty-five. That’s 135 percent worse than an average MLB hitter. It’s also illustrative of the extreme swings we can see in relatively small samples, so we would do well to take that with a grain of salt.

The funny thing about the most recent struggles, though, has been the return to the bad BABIP argument. Yes, Heyward has brought a great deal of that on himself by rolling the ball to the right side with great frequency. His ground ball percentage of late (53.1%) is up, though it isn’t much worse than his season mark (48.7%). He’s also pulling the ball at a 59.4% clip over the last 11 games, 20% higher than his season average.

Then you see that his hard-hit percentage is way up, from 25.4% on the season (about 5% below career average) to 37.5% over the last 11 games, and you wonder how more balls aren’t finding holes. A .094 BABIP in that span is indicative of a really nasty spate of bad luck, but it’s really a chicken/egg deal at this point. When he hits the ball hard, he hits it right at a defender. When he doesn’t hit it hard, well, defenders can get to it.

That’s the gray cloud; he has show zero consistency to this point in the season and it’s entirely possible that we won’t see any sustained improvement until next year. The silver lining is that Heyward’s a guy who can contribute even when he’s not hitting. His glove and his athleticism on the field and the basepaths (when he actually sees them) are strong enough to generally mitigate the absence of his bat. Still, it’s impossible to have any measure of confidence in what he brings to the table offensively.

So is there a way for him to fix this and get things headed in the right direction? I honestly don’t know. I’m not sure if a few days off would prompt some sort of cognitive and/or physical re-calibration that at least gets him back to level ground. Does he need to change his hand placement prior to or at load? Maybe eliminate the toe tap he worked with hitting coach John Mallee to add this spring?

For what it’s worth, I think the answer is yes to at least the first question, though I’m far from a swing coach. It just looks uncomfortable to my untrained eye, like Heyward is handcuffing himself against those inside pitches while also creating a weird swing path that has him diving into pitches and beating them into the ground on the right side. Again, that’s my decidedly amateur assessment.

As I did with Starlin Castro last season, I’m left with little choice but to officially denounce my endorsement of Heyward’s ability to bust out of his slump and blossom into a productive hitter this season. In Castro’s case, a shift in both position and expectations triggered a big change. So my real goal in casting hope aside here is to invoke my innate power to produce reverse karmic effects.

Totally plausible, right?

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