David Ross Discusses Jason Heyward’s Intangibles, Admits ‘Loyalty Factor’ Influences Decisions

Coming in a close second to a lack of experience among the reasons fans didn’t want to see David Ross named manager was a fear that he wouldn’t be able to hold his friends and former teammates accountable. That was a pretty silly notion at the time, namely because Ross was the grizzled old backstop who was brought to Chicago for that express purpose. Oh, and to catch Jon Lester.

This season, however, concerns of favoritism have arisen again as people question Jason Heyward‘s playing time. The conversation really flared up when the Cubs designated Jackson (née Clint) Frazier for assignment and Ross said it was because they couldn’t find any opportunities for the right-handed batter with serious upside and inexpensive club control.

Ed. note: In case you had not previously been made aware of Frazier’s request to be called Jackson rather than Clint, here’s a bit more on that. I’m still pretty surprised he cleared waivers and accepted his assignment, but it’s good to see him hitting well at Triple-A since the demotion.

Then the team called up outfield prospect Nelson Velázquez for the second time this season and didn’t start him until his fourth game back, which made sense based on Ross saying they’d use him the same way they had Frazier. When Velázquez did get an opportunity to play during those games in Pittsburgh, it was as either a defensive replacement or pinch hitter. Twice he replaced Ian Happ, who has been one of the best outfielders in the National League this season.

Though each of the games in question featured lopsided scores, prompting early exits for more than one everyday player, Heyward remained in every contest the whole time. His presence on the roster in general has been an ongoing topic of conversation, but it’s the playing time aspect — particularly over players like Frazier and Velázquez — that has left fans particularly vexed.

Ross spoke to that during an interview with The Bigs, part of which was released on Twitter Monday night.

“J-Hey does so much on and off the field, he’s helping Morel in center field,” Ross explained. “I know his at-bats aren’t where they want him to be, but he has a track record of having some success. And I know there’s gonna be a time where we get some other younger guys out, but we’re not even halfway through the season.

“There’s a loyalty factor from my standpoint, I love that guy. I know it’s all about production at the end of the day and that’s what fans see, but there’s so much more that he brings to the table. And we’ve already kind of lessened that role for him and he doesn’t face lefties as much, he’s been on board with that.”

Heyward missed the last two games against the Cardinals due to what Ross said was a sore knee, but he had started 19 of the previous 22 games in June and entered two others as a pinch-hitter or for defense. From June 1-24, Heyward was sixth on the team with 71 plate appearances despite batting in the bottom third of the order. I’m not sure I would call that lessening his role.

The part about facing lefties is definitely accurate. Though Ross actually said at the time of Frazier’s DFA that Heyward would receive most of the ABs that would normally go to right-handed hitters, that hasn’t been the case. Only 15.2% of Heyward’s plate appearances this season have come against southpaws, the lowest percentage of his career by a good margin.

That still hasn’t been enough to buoy his overall production, however, as the veteran outfielder is working on career-lows in average (.204), wOBA (.254), wRC+ (59), and fWAR (-0.2). It’s been pretty clear for a while now that his bat isn’t his carrying strength.

“He does a lot for our group and I understand he’s not where he wants to be, he wants to get better,” Ross said. “But he works hard every day and sets a really good example of letting these young guys know what it’s like to be big leaguers and there’s an art form to that.

“There’s a way to go about your business and J-Hey is probably the best I’ve ever been around and setting that example for these young guys and that’s really important to me and our organization.”

While I appreciate those leadership qualities as much as the next person, probably more than most, the current makeup of this Cubs roster more or less eliminates any potential for added value. Perhaps a better way to say it is that what Heyward brings to the table as a mentor and example would probably be even more valuable the less he’s in the lineup.

The last thing I want is for this to come off as bashing Heyward in any way. He’s been an incredible teammate and a tireless steward in the Chicago community from the moment he arrived, and he deserves a great deal of praise for that. The Cubs gave him a big contract and they got a World Series, which I’d call a fair trade. It’s unfortunate that his performance has been right around or even slightly under replacement level for the last two seasons now.

But here’s the thing: Heyward doesn’t make personnel decisions and he’s not setting the lineup each day. Whether you want to blame Ross’s loyalty, Jed Hoyer’s decision-making, or perhaps even an edict from ownership for the front office to sleep in the payroll bed they made, this matter is much bigger than one player.

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