Where Is Jason Heyward’s Optimal Batting Position?

Lineup construction certainly stands as one of the more heavily analyzed elements of Major League managers, and there’s probably an argument to be made somewhere that it’s also a largely overrated element. (Aside: I’m not saying that’s a sentiment that I share, as I put quite a bit of stock into that aspect, but it often does have a tendency to be harped on too much.) At the same time, as it relates to the Chicago Cubs, there is a legitimately immense level of intrigue with how Joe Maddon sets the lineup each day. With so many high-level bats and such a deep roster, there’s room for productive discussion in all facets of Maddon’s starting nine.

One part of how Maddon sets his daily lineup that lends itself to some intrigue relates to Jason Heyward and his place in it. Heyward obviously started the season lower in the order, getting his hacks in at the no. 6 spot with a few appearances in the seventh position in there as well. He’s since moved up, though, hitting five with decent regularity more recently, though how long he stays there before potentially being dropped back down to the sixth spot is anybody’s guess.

There’s a level of curiosity here as to where Jason Heyward might best fit, with that curiosity especially stemming from the productivity of other spots in the batting order. Kyle Schwarber’s place in the leadoff spot has essentially been vacated at this point, not because a player with his skill set isn’t a viable option at the top of the order, but because Schwarber himself has been struggling so mightily throughout the 2017 season to this point. With Maddon searching for consistency in the lead off spot, would it behoove him to explore a move of Heyward up to the top, or should he keep his fielding wizard of a right fielder in the bottom half?

The following represents Heyward’s performance at each spot in the batting order throughout his career, courtesy of FanGraphs:

1st 584 .274 .353 .772 .145 17.0 9.9 28.7
2nd 1302 .248 .342 .733 .143 18.9 11.2 30.5
3rd 587 .259 .336 .763 .169 22.5 10.2 35.2
4th 179 .284 .376 .744 .084 11.2 12.3 27.4
5th 483 .265 .347 .738 .126 15.7 10.4 26.9
6th 610 .283 .351 .846 .212 13.8 9.0 30.9
7th 339 .226 .316 .684 .142 21.8 10.9 32.0
8th 79 .329 .380 .894 .186 20.3 8.9 25.0
9th 32 .296 .387 .757 .074 15.6 9.4 18.2

In terms of the value of the data, there are a couple of different schools of thought to take here. The first is the idea that pitchers approach various spots throughout the order differently, so there’s definitely some validity to Heyward performing differently in different spots. That’s the more literal interpretation of the above data. At the same time, it’s also easy to look at this and draw zero conclusions about where Heyward should hit because his individual approach and skill set are going to be largely the same regardless of where Maddon puts him.

That being said, there’s definitely a certain amount of intrigue that comes along with Heyward’s past production out of the leadoff spot. He’s shown an ability to reach base at a high rate, while adding a little bit of pop. Of course, it’s important to note that his time spent in the leadoff spot came before his recent struggles and subsequent overhaul of his swing, so it remains to be seen if the guy seen in the top spot during those previous plate appearances is the guy the Cubs would see in the instance of putting him there now. Heyward profiles well as a no. 2 hitter, a sentiment shared by managers in previous years based solely off of his PA total, but the 2-3 combination of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo is hard to argue against.

As such, when it comes down to it, there are really two routes the Cubs could go with Heyward. They could try him at the top of the order, where there isn’t a surefire option at this point with Schwarber having been knocked down. Or they could keep him down in the fifth or sixth spots depending on matchups and other lineup factors. The latter primarily depends on┬áBen Zobrist’s presence in the order, but also Addison Russell’s productivity moving forward. If Russell finds a power groove, it’s likely we’d see Heyward in the sixth spot, with Zobrist and Russell serving as the 4-5. Essentially we’re looking at Heyward as a top of the order guy or a six-hole hitter, in the best-case scenario that sees Russell regain some form.

In terms of what the Cubs, or anyone, could want from a leadoff guy, they’re primarily looking for the right combination of approach and on-base skills. Speed isn’t the necessity at the top of the order that it used to be. It’s what made Schwarber an attractive option in that spot, given his advanced approach. Would the Cubs have that in Heyward? Maybe.

First, let’s consider it in terms of the approach and patience. Based off of pitches per plate appearance numbers alone, Heyward is behind where Dexter Fowler was last year and where Kyle Schwarber was prior to being dropped in the order. Fowler was at 4.41 P/PA, while Schwarber came in at 4.46. Heyward’s at just 3.59. In fact, Heyward’s swing rate is actually quite a bit higher, with his 48.1 Swing% representing an increase of almost seven percent. By comparison, Fowler was at just 38.9% last year, while Schwarber’s at 42.7%. So if you’re looking for a guy to run up the pitch count to start the ballgame, then maybe Heyward isn’t your guy. Of course, the mentality shifts when you’re in that spot, so perhaps we’d see an adjustment from him in the event that he’s moved up. But even if that’s not the case, does he fit the bill as the high-OBP guy to compensate for maybe seeing less pitches to start off the order?

It’s hard to advocate for that element of his game, either. With the luck he’s had this year at least. Despite making harder contact and barreling up pitches at a higher rate this season, Heyward has run into his fair share of bad luck, with a batting average on balls in play of only .272. When you combine the increased aggressiveness with a lack of luck, it becomes mighty difficult to rationalize Jason Heyward in such a position. As enticing as the idea may be, with Heyward’s largely resurgent skill set, the best place for him might be where he’s already getting his regular at-bats.

With Jason Heyward, it’s likely best to abide by the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. This is still a relatively delicate situation as while a lot of evidence points to a Heyward rebound, it ultimately hasn’t completely translated to the stat sheet. You want his confidence to keep building, especially after the way he was visibly discouraged at the plate last season, and should he continue to thrive in a 5-6 role, that’s likely where you’ll want him to remain.

Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports

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