In the beginning, the defense goes “It’s just April. It’s chilly. He’ll pick up when the weather warms up.”
In June, it becomes “It’s still early in the season. He’s adjusting.”
But when the season approaches the 152 games played mark, as it did on the North Side this past Wednesday evening, the sentiment becomes “He just didn’t have a good season.”
Even just a few weeks ago, when Jason Heyward went on a short hot streak in which he hit .333 over a nine game stretch in late August, there was still hope that perhaps there would be a salvageable end to the regular season for Heyward, perhaps a hot streak where he put it all together just in time for the playoffs.
But as the Cubs sit in waiting for the final act of the 2016 season, Heyward will see somewhere around 30 more trips to the plate before closing the book on a disappointing season in which he is currently hitting .232/.305/.325 with a TAv of just .236. Heyward hit just seven home runs, the first time in his seven year career in which he failed to hit a double digit amount of home runs, and is also posting a negative WARP (-0.2) for the first time in his career.
Still, o say that Heyward was a bust is simply a ludicrous display of ignorance for the bigger picture, a picture that has only been uncovered by just a small fraction. Players have down years, and despite the expectation that his lofty 6’5” 245 pound frame put on him, he is seven years into his career and never going to club 40 home runs into the stands anyway.
If there is anything that the recent past can teach Cubs fans, it’s that things are not always rosy for their superstar free agent finds in their first year on the North side. The struggles of then-newly acquired starting pitcher Jon Lester in 2015, his first year with the Cubs, raised similar concerns. Lester’s struggles made many come to the rash conclusion that after just the first year, the rest of his 6-year $155 million contract was a waste of resources. But just one year later, Lester’s second full season into his 6-year contract, and he has become a pivotal force in this Cubs starting staff, if not the most consistent and important fixture of it, while finding himself thrust into Cy Young discussion. Simply put, one year for a veteran ace is not enough of a sample size to draw such a drastic conclusion from.
Heyward currently has the sixth-lowest batting average, second-lowest slugging average, and fourth-lowest TAv among all major league players with a minimum of 500 plate appearances, and while some folks reading this may have realized Heyward was struggling, perhaps did not realize his struggles were this profound. That’s the key here though. The Cubs still have one of the best offenses in baseball, holding onto the highest team TAv in the majors, the fourth-highest slugging percentage, and the highest OBP in the National League — all while Heyward has participated in 133 games.
The reality of this situation on the North Side is that one of the most important pieces the Cubs added to their puzzle this offseason has been posting not only career worst marks, but some of the worst offensive marks in baseball this season, and the Cubs have still been one of the strongest offenses, and winningest teams in the majors since April. They still won their division before any other team, and they never slipped out of first place.
Thus, Heyward’s offensive silence is buried among some of the loudest noise in baseball this season, including two legitimate MVP candidates. That’s a gift that Cubs fans shouldn’t take for granted. Nearly any other offense and team would be hurt in a meaningful way by such a poor performance from such a key addition to their lineup.
Could Heyward’s struggles be mechanical as some suggest? It’s likely. It’s also likely that in the middle of the season and a playoff race, now is not the time for Heyward and the Cubs coaching staff to work with him on a complete overhaul of his plate approach. Right now the Cubs are not in desperate need of him offensively, they’re in need of something that has been strongly overlooked all season from Heyward — his defense.
Defensive metrics are still not as refined as offensive, pitching, and now even catching metrics are. This we know. But when met with the simple old fashioned eye test, they give a good baseline to confirm that what you’re seeing is real. Heyward’s elite defense — one of the main reasons he was so interesting to the Cubs this offseason — has not been in short supply in 2016.
Heyward is currently sporting the third best DRS among right fielders with 12 runs saved, while ranking eighth in UZR at 13.6. So while Heyward may not be adding a ton of value to the team at the plate, he’s certainly adding value by preventing opponents offensive damage, and coming to the aid of his pitching staff where it’s needed.
Don’t panic, Cubs fans, not even a player who’s putting up one of the worst offensive campaigns this season can’t weigh this team down. Remember it’s just his first year, and this type of season is certainly an outlier for Heyward. The success and potential are there, Epstein and Co. wouldn’t have went to such great lengths to pursue a player who had the potential to put up a season such as 2016 with regularly. “He can become the hottest hitter in the National League over the next month, and he’s very capable of it.” Maddon said of Heyward in August. Who knows — perhaps October will be Heyward’s chance to shine.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.