Position: Right Field
2015 Stats: 610 PA, .293/.359/.439, .294 TAv, 9.2% BB%, 14.8% K%, 5.9 WARP
How He Fits: There are times when expectations can cloud our reality. You compare a player to Hank Aaron and instantly visions of a middle-of-the-order bat sending 40-plus balls into the seats each season come to mind. However, through six seasons, that hasn’t been what we’ve gotten with Jason Heyward—who garnered Aaron comps before he even took a big-league hack. Some have been down on the talented right fielder over the years, likely due to the fact that Heyward didn’t fit the mold many had set for him after high rankings and an offhand comment by Bobby Cox suggesting that the ball made the same sound coming off Heyward’s bat as it did with Aaron.
Sure, power is what draws attention to a player, gets the headlines, and one of the primary skillsets one seeks when listing off the top offensive performers in the game. If you run down the top 30 players in 2015 according to WARP, only two players had an ISO below .150: Francisco Cervelli, a catcher who gets on base a ton and frames the hell out of the ball, and Heyward. But before we dive into Heyward’s lack of power—and whether it’s something that could change going forward—let’s take a look at why he did check in as the 12th-best position player according to WARP last season and why he’s a near-perfect fit for the Cubs.
Outside of the obvious need to upgrade the team’s pitching, Theo Epstein has clearly stated the need to improve the Cub’s contact hitting and outfield defense; adding Heyward would signify an immediate step up in both areas for the Cubs. After posting a career-high 27 home runs in 2012, to go alongside a career-low 75.4 percent contact rate, both numbers have been trending in the opposite direction ever since. Last season Heyward delivered a career-best 84.2 percent contact rate (with just 13 home runs, his third straight year below 15), a number that would have led all Cubs with at least 100 plate appearances in 2015. Heyward walks a lot, strikes out rarely, and to top it all off, he’s consistently putting the ball in play. The latter two skills go hand in hand, and they’re something the Cubs are in desperate need of and would happily add to their lineup.
And of course there’s Heyward’s glove. As much as I (and others) have defended Kyle Schwarber’s defense, the fact is, he’s still below average. Below average may have been a compliment for Jorge Soler at times last summer, and center field is currently manned by the patch of grass most recently treaded by Dexter Fowler. Adding Heyward’s defense to the outfield mix would be a huge boost to the club, as that’s where his value is primarily earned. If you’re a fan of the advanced defensive stats, then you love Heyward. Last season, manning right field for 1,217 1/3 of the 1,268 1/3 defensive innings he played, Heyward was second in baseball in UZR (20.2), fourth in DRS (22), and seventh in FRAA (18).
Oh, but you’re suspicious of defensive statistics? Good deal, so am I. How about the eye test?
He certainly passes that. He also won the Gold Glove in the NL and Fielding Bible Award as the best defensive right fielder in all of baseball. But yeah, I get you, the eye test is suspect and awards shouldn’t sway our opinions too heavily either.
Not that I doubted it, but the clincher for me is what every scout I spoke with had to say about his defense: it was roundly agreed that he’s the best glove in right field by quite a bit, with multiple putting an 80 on his defense when he’s in a corner and still above average if moved to center. There was no hesitation from any scout. Heyward’s glove is legit; all the highlights and advanced stats aren’t deceiving us, this kid has proven time and again that he’s the real deal.
Add in that each one of these scouts went out of their way to praise his makeup—as one scout said, “(He) never takes a play off and he just gives a damn.” and that he’ll play 2016 at just 26 years old, and he sure seems like an ideal fit for the Cubs. Imagine a plus-plus defender in right field (or plus in center), who leads by example, works to improve every aspect of his game at all times, puts up a strong .294 TAv, and hasn’t even reached his prime. That’s Heyward and it’s hard to see how he isn’t a perfect target for any team, let alone the Cubs.
Why it Won’t Work: Well, like I just said, Heyward is a fit for any team and has yet to hit his prime. There aren’t too many top-tier players who make it to the open market at the age of 26 anymore, so expect the price for the Georgia native to get to an uncomfortable level. The Cubs’ immediate financial flexibility is really the only thing keeping them from being a complete power house both on and off the field. And while that could—and most certainly should—change down the road, the reality is, the Cubs have to think long and hard when handing out contracts that pass the $20 million mark annually. And there is no doubt, Heyward’s contract will soar past that number.
There’s also the question of where he’d play. Currently, the Cubs have Soler manning right field, and while Heyward would be an upgrade in the immediate future, some would argue that Soler’s offense has significantly more upside. But, well, Soler’s offensive projections aren’t too off from what many saw for Heyward six years ago, so we can’t rely on what may be. However, that’s another argument for another day; the reality is that Heyward fits in the Cubs outfield in two ways: either Soler is traded—most likely for an impact arm—or Heyward plays center field, where many scouts are adamant he’d be above average for at least the next couple years. It may not be a prime setup when you’d have him flanked by two below-average defensive corner outfielders, but it’s an option. And the versatility Heyward provides shouldn’t be overlooked; Soler is stuck as a below-average fielder in a corner, while Heyward can deliver plus defense anywhere in the outfield.
The ideal scenario including Heyward has him as a huge defensive upgrade in right—along with a strong bat at that spot—Soler traded for an arm, and either a one-year stopgap or a glove-first option filling center. There’s a lot of moving parts here, but it’s an undertaking that could help lead the Cubs from an overachieving 97-win team, to one that has legit 97-plus win talent on the roster. And not just for 2016, but for a window that extends into the next decade.
But there are still those low power numbers that just stare us mockingly whenever we look at Heyward’s stats. Yes, one naturally expects more pop from a corner outfield bat, there’s no doubt about it. Interestingly enough, there’s one optimistic school of thought that suggests Heyward, being just 26, will learn to leverage the ball better with his swing and the home runs and ISO will jump in the coming years. But as with his defense and makeup, scouts were generally in agreement that more power is unlikely to come. Sure, they left open the chance, but there was a consensus that his swing just isn’t built to drive the ball over the fence.
“His bat path is a little steep and he can get really closed up with his lower half, which hinders his rotation and ability to really generate leverage and lift his pull side with regularity,” said one scouting director.
“It’s possible to grow, but his swing is complicated and not especially tailored for that trajectory,” added a pro scout I spoke with. “He can hit the (crap) out of the ball, but hitting for power often requires selling out your time in the zone. And for a big man with long arms, Heyward hits more like a leadoff type than a middle-of-the-order bat. He’s very hard into it, so the stroke is shorter with less loft.”
Those were just two of the many sentiments that fell along this line of thinking. Unless Heyward significantly alters his mechanics—which would probably be a poor decision—one should not expect him to be putting up 25-plus homers in a season as he heads into his prime years. Of course, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have tremendous value at the plate.
While some may obsess over the lack of power from Heyward and assume he’s a bad fit for a corner outfielder, there are a couple things to keep in mind. First of all, the Cubs currently have three bats who are nearly certain to be in next year’s lineup—Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant—who could each hit 25 or more homers. That isn’t even counting Soler and a still-developing Javier Baez. Unlike nearly every other team, the North Siders are well-equipped to handle getting below-average power production from a position that typically relies on pop being a priority.
With that in mind, it’s important to remember just how valuable Heyward is at the plate. A lack of power can completely alter our perception of a player’s offensive value. If I told you that the Cubs were getting Carlos Gonzalez and his 40 home runs, no one would be complaining about the offense. But the reality is, while Heyward doesn’t add the long balls like Gonzalez does, he’s a better offensive threat. Heyward topped Gonzalez in both TAv (.294 to .284) and wRC+ (121 to 114) and is a significantly better baserunner. Heyward just doesn’t put up the type of numbers one expects from a right fielder, thus he gets downgraded. His value on offense is found in his ability to draw walks, to put the ball in play, and to take that extra base—or steal a base, as he has 43 steals in 50 attempts over the last two years.
Yes, it’s a risk to invest significant money in a player whose value derives solely from defense, but it’s not like that’s Heyward’s lone skillset. For other teams, a right fielder who can’t push the 20 mark in home runs would be an issue, but the Cubs aren’t one of those teams. They need elite defense, they need contact, and it never hurts to add another player with pristine makeup who has a solid amount of postseason experience. Oh, and did I mention he’s still just 26? The Cubs may be scared off by his ultimate price tag—though I’d argue that a 26-year-old who is in great shape and possesses the work ethic to remain that way, big contract or not, is exactly the type of player who should get those deals—but what he brings to the table is perfect for this roster. Whether he patrols center or right is something that can be debated going forward, but either way, he’s exactly the type of player this team—or any, really—should be investing significant money in.
Lead photo courtesy of Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports