Marketers know the trick about hype is that a little goes a long way. Too much hype becomes a vehicle for disappointment. Jason Heyward, the highest paid Cub in history playing on the most eagerly anticipated team of 2016, is sitting securely in the excessive hype danger zone. And, unfortunately for him, it feels like home. Whether making him beneficiary or victim, hype and the high pressure expectations that go with it have been Heyward’s constant companions for most of his life.
The Atlanta Braves began scouting him at age 11. At 20, Heyward’s major league debut was accompanied by a Sports Illustrated feature called Legend Before His Time. The article detailed his as-close-to-professional-without-the-paycheck upbringing in baseball and highlighted the sheer loftiness of expectations surrounding him in that first game. The Braves had already been calling Heyward the next Hank Aaron, and provided fans with some obvious imagery as the Hall of Famer tossed the rookie the ceremonial first pitch:
“My wife broke down,” [Heyward’s father] Eugene says. “I thought, Oh, my God. This is almost symbolic. It’s like Hank, the rightfielder, is passing the ball on to the next rightfielder, and saying, ‘Here it is, kid. Catch it.'”
One does not achieve this level of hype without being extraordinary. And Heyward was and he is, in nearly every aspect of the game. However, the subtitle to that introductory article deemed Heyward “The Most Intimidating Slugging Prospect in Years,” a promise that has yet to be fully realized. Through six seasons that include four postseason appearances, three Golden Glove awards, and an All Star nod, Heyward has delivered reliable, but not quite elite, offense. His everything else has made up for it. Yet, between the early hype and his undeniably powerful build, fans and experts alike may still confuse the player he actually is with who they believe he should be. The Cubs paid $184 million to gain the player, and person, Heyward is. They knew what they were getting, and it is so much more than a slash line.
Heyward’s defensive value requires little explanation at this point. Fangraphs has recently provided a picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words argument for the contribution he makes in right field. Imagining the Cubs’ defense in his absence compared to division rivals would be a scary proposition. The less obvious characteristics that make Heyward great–his knowledge of the game, work ethic, focus, and leadership—are deserving of further exploration, particularly in light of some distasteful commentary from his rebuffed former team this offseason. Let’s focus on them now.
As an adolescent being seriously scouted by his hometown team, Heyward avoided the child star, diva-like attitude that could have easily infected his mentality. He remained unaffected and unwavering in his quest to master the game. The head of his youth baseball program recalled, “His work ethic became unbelievable. He’s truly the best player I’ve ever been around at [age] 15 and 16, and not just in sheer talent. His mental approach and understanding of how to play the game and maturity were just unreal.” UCLA coach John Savage, who hoped he might be able to recruit Heyward, remembered, “He was way beyond his years, physically and mentally. People treated him with respect and looked up to him. He made people around him better.”
Along every step (and salary bump) in his professional journey, teammates have been initially struck by Heyward’s work ethic, focus, and team-oriented determination:
“It’s fun to watch him play the game because he plays it the right way. Always hustling. Always doing what he needs to do.” Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves, 2010
“He’s always very focused. He seems like a guy that really understands. At his age, to be so young, you gotta work extra hard to be great. He is putting in all the time and effort…and it’s showing on the field.” Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals, 2015
“This organization has touted themselves on the character they bring in, and he’s no different. He gets it. Hard worker and you can tell that he cares.” Jason Hammel, Chicago Cubs, 2016
Further time spent with Heyward has elicited reverential commentary on his baseball knowledge. Anthony Rizzo has been particularly impressed, describing his mind as, “Awesome. He’s very advanced with everything. He sees everything. He watches everything. He pays attention to everything, which in my opinion is not easy to do. Baseball smart. He’s five steps ahead of the game, anticipating this, anticipating moves off the bench—‘Why would you throw that guy this pitch in this situati on?’— little things that are really hard to explain to an outsider.”
Winning over the Cubs’ “young veteran” first baseman places Heyward in an excellent position to impact his new team. Born one day apart, he and Rizzo are young enough to relate well to the less-experienced guys, while simultaneously holding their respect and offering meaningful guidance. Being able to pull off student one day and teacher the next is a powerful combination for leadership and unity.
Joe Maddon understands the immense value of this kind of peer mentorship on a ball club, saying, “The biggest thing with this guy is don’t forget he’s 26 years of age. That really baffles me sometimes. He’s not 33, and he has this huge body of work. He’s 26, and he’s arrived at this level of baseball mental maturity… That is exactly what you’re looking forward to working with. He’s bright and he’s engaging and he’s fun. He’s got all this stuff. He’s been good for a lot of the guys in the clubhouse already.”
Maddon has been so high on Heyward’s upside and intangibles, in fact, that he includes him among the rarest of elite players in baseball: “He can beat you in the five-tool way. And the sixth tool—just the way he thinks…He’s going to hit, he’s going to hit plenty. But all this other stuff he can do nightly to win when he’s not getting a hit, not many people have that part of his resume.”
Heyward, for his part, has already given the Cubs a taste of that resume. Spring Training 2016 has been business as usual for this hardworking student of the game. From his early arrival in Mesa to his dramatic three-run jack right after being attacked by bees, Heyward is unflappably doing his thing. He takes his job so seriously that he nearly caused a nationally televised kerfuffle in a meaningless game. Bumgarner and the Giants could not guess he would be concerned enough with a Spring Training strikeout to want confirmation on a call and assumed he must be up to something more sinister.
The gigantic contract he signed with the Cubs may be life changing for Heyward, but it does not appear to be game changing. Still taking nothing for granted, Heyward is sending a message and setting a clear example that every moment on the field is an opportunity to learn and improve. This, as much as anything, is the stuff on which championships are built.
When Heyward isn’t doing the right things, he is saying them, again proving how a true leader conducts himself. Before joining the Cardinals last season, he laid it down: “I take a lot of pride in doing the right things and doing the little things on both sides of the baseball… I just try to be a complete player, try to do what I can to help my team win on any given night. I don’t like to go through a game without getting my jersey dirty. I feel like I haven’t done enough that night if I didn’t get dirty. That’s the way I grew up playing the game.”
Now with the Cubs, he recognizes the unique knowledge he has to impart and is eager for the quest to officially begin, explaining, “It’s special for this group to feel something I got to experience in St. Louis, that teams will get up to beat you every day because you have a reputation for being good. We get to experience that now, here, this season. It’s going to be a lot of fun.” When it comes to embracing the target this year and successfully navigating all of that hype, Heyward is up to the task.
Considering how young he began and the wisdom he has clearly gained, Heyward may be the oldest 26-year-old in the game today. His time spent with winning clubs, including multiple playoff appearances, will be instructive for the Cubs’ youthful roster. The knowledge, focus, and work ethic that have been present throughout his career now inject into the team culture a healthy dose of leadership by example. With a squad that built its success last season on a different hero every night, his team-first attitude fits right in. Heyward wields the perfect combination of youth and experience to position himself as both a peer and mentor to the Cubs’ core. He is certainly more than the sum of his stats.
If the Cubs get off to a slow start this season, and Heyward is anything but amazing at the plate, there will be some who call him overrated and overpaid, as at least one scout has already. They will be wrong. They may look to the accounting that demonstrated how Heyward’s new contract was actually a bargain compared to his projected $300 million value. Or consider that, excepting a tough first month last year, Heyward batted a very respectable .309/.376/.460 after May 4th, contributing to his squad’s 100-win season and playoff berth. Or they may simply remember the significant upside that a five–or six–tool player brings over 162 games.
If anyone can handle the 2016 Cubs’ hype problem, Heyward can. Facing expectations and shaking off pressure have by now become second nature. Heyward’s father admitted to pushing him into baseball initially because of its ability to highlight individual greatness on any team. But Heyward has lived and learned the double-edged reality of the game he loves—individual performance cannot lift a baseball team to victory. So he will carry on, playing his game his way, always trying to improve, and helping others follow suit. To Heyward, it’s simple: “If I hit 40 home runs last year, I’d say I’d like to hit 50. I’m not a person that gets complacent. I would like to build on that but also keep that average up. Just be what the lineup needs.”
Leadership may look different to different people, but wisdom and maturity beyond one’s years are unmistakable. In this game, it seems, Jason Heyward has actually been ‘The Man’ since he was a boy.
Lead photo courtesy Joe Camporeale—USA Today Sports.