Mind over matter: How Jason Heyward got back to his old self

Going 0 for 4 in a single game can be frustrating for a baseball player, but going 0 for 4 in almost every game is almost unimaginable. Especially when you’re trying to live up to a $184 million contract. It’s not often you can say a season has been bad when it ends in a World Series parade, but that’s exactly what 2016 was for Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward.

No one would have guessed when Heyward signed that the Cubs big offseason acquisition would be a bench player by the time the playoffs began. But after all of that, Heyward worked all winter to rebuild his swing and the results so far have been very positive.

Last week, I talked with Heyward about some of his struggles from 2016 and how he feels with the success so far this year. Like most reporters I asked a few questions, but one in particular caught him by surprise.

Question: “With the way you’ve been swinging it lately, are you starting to feel like the old Jason again?”

After thinking about it in silence for about seven seconds, he responded with a chuckle.

“I’m just trying to go out there and play the game to the best of my abilities and have a good approach every game at the plate,” Heyward said. “Approach it the same way every day in the cage and understanding what I need to do to be relaxed, tension-free and just react to pitches.”

While this baseball cliché wasn’t the answer I was expecting or the most interesting answer Heyward’s ever given me, the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how much it applied to his 2016 season. Prior to the 2016, Heyward carried a confidence with him at the plate and in the field. As last season wore on and the struggles began to mount, his confidence faded and so did his at-bats. By the beginning of July, all that could be expected was a groundout to second or a strikeout.

This season has been a 180 in comparison. Heyward’s hitting .265 with 5 homers (He had just 7 home runs in all of 2016) and 21 RBI. While those numbers won’t win him an MVP anytime soon, they are far better than what we saw from him last season. No longer are his at-bats non-competitive and feel like the count is automatically 0-2. This season, he sees pitches, battles deep into counts and is hitting the ball with authority consistently. Whether he says it or not, he is back to being the old Jason.

Not only does Heyward’s start to the 2017 season pass the eye test, but the numbers are backing him up as well. My colleague Randy Holt touched on those numbers more in depth in his piece last week. Check it out here.

Some players quickly forget their struggles and try not to dwell on the past, but focus on ways to create success in the future. Others think about their failures and use them in a way to improve themselves going forward. While there’s no science on what is most successful, both have been part of Heyward’s success this year.

“It’s all of the above. I don’t feel like you can ignore it (struggles). You gotta be aware and make an adjustment. That’s the name of this game. We’re going to fail way more than we succeed, it’s gonna happen. That’s why this is a humbling game. You always take failure and learn from it.”

Like Heyward said, there will be many more times where he will scuffle and look bad at the plate, but he hopes last year will help him be better prepared for it. After the worst season in his career in 2016, there was nowhere to go but up, and he’s showing he’s not looking to slow down anytime soon.

Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports

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