As we are slowly but surely reaching the 100-games-left-in-the-season mark of the 2016 season, it’s a bit surprising to see that Jason Heyward’s slash line is sitting at a dismal .226/.323/.313. He’s only hit three home runs on the season so far, and is striking out at a 20 percent clip—something Heyward hasn’t done since his 2012 season in Atlanta.
At age 26, Heyward already has six years of his career behind him, and in what is to be considered his prime, he’s in theory just getting started. He was the biggest commodity the Cubs pursued in the offseason, and they landed him, making the landscape of the 2016 Cubs look picture perfect in the eyes of Cubs fans.
But after two months, the clock is ticking, and patience may be wearing a little thin on Heyward. The thing is, there’s more to the story than the slash line for Heyward, and it’s nothing to be concerned about even this far into the season.
It is, in fact, still early.
Of course that may seem silly to say considering we are already ⅓ of the way through the season, but it’s still downright true.
“But he got off to a slow start last year, too. And then when it clicked, he was off and running.” Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein told the media back in May.
Heyward has historically gotten off to slower starts in April, that really isn’t anything new, and this April, Heyward actually posted his highest batting average in the last four seasons. The power is what slowed down for Heyward, who posted the second lowest slugging average of his career this April at just .271. But the thing about power, is in these situations from season to season, it just needs some time to wake up.
A vital piece of Heyward’s game that didn’t suffer in the early months, and one of the aspects that intrigued me the most during the Cubs’ pursuit of him in the offseason is his on base presence. Heyward got on base at a .333 clip in April, the highest OBP he’s posted since 2012. Some of that on base presence had to do with incorporating the Cubs philosophy of practicing patience at the plate into his approach even moreso than he has been know to over his career, seeing as Heyward walked 13.1 percent of the time in April—a career high for him.
When it comes to baseball in the Midwest, weather is always a large factor when evaluating power production early in the season, something the Cubs have seen with Jorge Soler, and something that is just a well understood fact: the ball goes farther as the nights get warmer, but sometimes the nights don’t get warmer for a few months.
“And he’s going to—there’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to. It’s just a matter of time. I think the warm weather is going to help. Whatever aches and pains you have have a tendency to loosen up more rapidly when the weather is like this. I’m anticipating all that with him.” Manager Joe Maddon told reporters when asked if he thought Heyward would be joining the “hit parade” anytime soon.
Heyward has shown signs of life recently though, blasting two of the three home runs he’s totaled on the season within the last week, including his 100th career home run. “It’s cool to be in that group, but it’s only 100 home runs. It’s awesome to contribute in a win.” Heyward the media after Monday’s win at Citizen’s Bank Park.
Heyward’s issue has certainly been that he’s seeing a power outage, and that’s reflected in his batted ball data. Heyward’s soft contact rate is currently sitting at just above 31 percent this season, up 9 percentage points from 2015, while his hard contact rate is down by 8 percentage points. However, I wouldn’t expect to see that disparity last for much longer.
Heyward is also hitting infield fly balls at over double the rate he was in 2015, up to 23 percent this season from 12 percent he posted in St. Louis. Heyward is hitting the ball on the ground quite a bit this season, a product of him being pitched in on his hands so often, and though his ground ball percentage has gone down from a whopping 57 percent in 2015 to just 49 percent in 2016, that number is still a little higher than is in line with his mid-40s percentages over the last three seasons.
We’ve seen the StatCast data though. Heyward has had moments in which he’s scorched the ball—but usually right at someone—something his low .281 BABIP has proven. Heyward just isn’t seeing a lot of luck on his side so far this season when he does hit the ball with authority.
Weather, injury, the tendency to get off to a slower start, etc. aren’t the only things that have possibly plagued Heyward’s production this season though. You may remember that Heyward was dealing with a nagging wrist injury in May, something that was an issue for him dating back to the second series of the season in Arizona. “I don’t think it’s a long-term kind of thing by any means, but his wrist is sore,” Maddon said of the Heyward. “He hasn’t said anything, and then finally he said something, so we’re trying to react to it right now.”
Indeed, Heyward did not require a DL stint for the injury, but the soreness combined with a slow start, and the chillier weather could have been the perfect recipe for this type of pseudo-poor start.
His offensive struggles aside, Heyward has done nothing short of dazzle Cubs fans with his work in the outfield, with defense being one of the prime reasons for the Cubs’ interest in the three time Gold Glove winning outfielder.
This Cubs organization understands that run prevention is a pivotal part of success in the game, and that sometimes the runs that are prevented from scoring in the field can be more valuable than the ones you put up at the plate.
Though there aren’t yet a bevy of defensive metrics that can truly be relied upon yet, there’s nothing better than the eye test, and when you see Heyward out there making defensive plays such as this one just a few days ago at Wrigley Field, you can certainly see how he’s merited those three Gold Gloves.
The truth is, despite the slash line showing signs of trouble for Heyward nearly 60 games into the season, the tone surrounding the struggles he’s facing seems rather relaxed. Perhaps the fact that the Cubs offense is the second best in the league according to TAv has helped relieve the pressure a bit for Heyward, and he’s free to endure the idiocyncrasies of his 2016 without feeling the stress of having to carry a team offensively. If anything, he’s made up for his lack of flare at the plate so far tenfold with the defense he’s brought to the outfield and the on base presence which is not in short supply. Not to mention he leads the team in stolen bases so far this season with seven.
Give Heyward a few more weeks, and when the dog days of summer start to really kick into full gear, and the playoff races begin to take more meaningful shape than they have now, I’m certain Heyward will be ready to step up to the challenges that lie ahead. But for now, there is no real reason to worry about him.
Lead photo courtesy Bill Streicher—USA Today Sports.