Playing the Long Game: Joe Maddon and Jason Heyward

Baseball’s 162-game season can sometimes make individual games feel weightier than they actually are, and the struggles of a single player look greater and feel more frustrating than they probably should. Baseball should be as much about stepping back and seeing the forest as a whole as it is picking through the minutiae of splits and sample sizes. So let’s take a look at Jason Heyward’s 2016 from 30,000 feet, and see what we find.

For the most part, Heyward’s poor performance at the plate, especially early on, was tolerated because of his defense, but also because the Cubs were winning. Who worries, after all, about one guy who’s not hitting when the team as a whole looks invincible? And anyway, it was easy to pull out a handful of numbers and show how Heyward’s April of 2016 wasn’t all that different from his 2014 or 2015:

2014 2015 2016
Slash line .206/.296/.314 .217/.261/.349 .224/.333/.271
wOBA .280 .267 .281
wRC+ 76 67 72

Heck, in some ways, Heyward was actually better in the first month of the season than in those past seasons. But when the team skidded, and when late June and early July looked like a deadly swoon, fans started getting restless, and asking for a change. Check out Heyward’s July splits from the last three years, laid out together:

2014 2015 2016
Slash line .309/.371/.383 .312/.387/.419 .217/.291/.326
wOBA .340 .347 .273
wRC+ 118 122 66

Woof. Now there’s a problem. If you’re doing the math at home, that’s an almost two hundred point drop off from his OPS in July 2015 to what it was this past month. And yet, at the beginning of July, Heyward was still entrenched in the second spot in the order, and his OPS was hovering around .650. But on Independence Day, Joe Maddon made the shift to send him to sixth in the order. It was a move that felt a long time coming by then, and given that Heyward lasted until just April 27 in the second spot with the Cardinals last year, one that probably should have come sooner. True, the 2015 Cardinals and the 2016 Cubs are hardly apples to apples, but Heyward does have a 148 career wRC+ when he’s batting sixth, and just a 104 career wRC+ when batting second, so maybe hitting him in the second half of the order was where he should have started.

But again, this is a forest. What are we missing? Why did Maddon wait so long to move Heyward down? Consider A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat—a painting so large when seen in person that it forces the viewer to step back and take it in as a whole. Maybe Joe Maddon is more like Seurat and what can look like a series of dots that don’t make anything when viewed in isolation is really just a small part of something larger.

So when so much time and energy is devoted to exploring whether it’s a lingering wrist injury or that Heyward is late getting set on fastballs, a pitch he’s seen over 60 percent of the time this year, maybe it’s too much the trees of the forest and not enough of the work as a whole. Joe Maddon might have kept him in the second spot in the order far longer than Mike Matheny did last year because he’s working on a wall-size painting made of individual dots on a canvas that needs Heyward to trust him in order for it to work.

This could be the reason why, when the subject of the lineup drop was broached a month ago, Heyward had no trouble with it, saying, “Joe wants to mix it up and continue to do things to help us as a group. I’m not really thinking about that. Just trying to help the team win.” Maddon said, too, that he and Heyward had talked about it, and there was no issue on Heyward’s end. The immediate success of this move (Heyward went 2 for 4 with a double and two RBI on July 4), led Maddon to feel like perhaps opening up to further changes to the lineup might yield similar results in the offense as a whole. It’s also possible that that’s been his plan all along. After all, if Jason Heyward agrees to move down in the order, who is Willson Contreras to say no to batting second, like he did on Tuesday?

Think, too, of the eventual benching of Starlin Castro last year, and his ensuing performance when he returned to the lineup. Maddon earns the grace of his players by giving them the time to figure things out before he makes the call for them, and sometimes more time than other managers would. We’ve seen in other instances recently where prominent members of the team have been gracious about such things, and this likely speaks to a team culture that values something more than how such moves are affecting them personally.

And who knows, maybe it helps. Heyward has been 5 for 16 (.313) since July 28, and three of those five hits were for extra bases (two doubles and a home run).  Perhaps, for Heyward, his most recent stretch of games, though a small stretch and thus a very small sample, have been enough to create some hope for him. Perhaps his managers’ trust in him has done the same. Even if they haven’t, and 2016 finishes poorly for Jason Heyward the individual, I’ll bank on taking a step back when the season is done and appreciating the work as a whole and not getting lost in the trees or the individual points from a brush. Joe Maddon can’t afford to. And perhaps he hasn’t, while the rest of us have.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.

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2 comments on “Playing the Long Game: Joe Maddon and Jason Heyward”


Ho hum.
So what if Heyward never hits better than now? It’s possible, especially now that we can’t blame a “slow start.”

Jared Wyllys

Never as in this year? Or beyond that?

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