As a self-proclaimed, high-ranking member of the Jason Heyward Fan Club, the past calendar year-and-a-half hasn’t been particularly easy. Despite his glove being as elite as advertised, the lack of offensive production that Heyward has demonstrated at the plate has proven to be too much (too little?) for most Cub fans to handle, leaving the likes of myself and others who have persistently remained faithful to this point wavering quite a bit. As the regular season begins to wind down, exactly how should we feel about Heyward?
In a general sense, there’s plenty to like about what Jason Heyward has turned in in 2017. Of course, coming off of a season in which he posted a slash that featured a paltry .230 average, while reaching base at a clip of only .306, and slugging just .325, there was a whole lot of room for improvement to the point where any production was going to be good production. In 2017, Heyward has certainly improved offensively, with a .262 average, .324 OBP, and .388 slugging. His TAv has also come up quite a bit, leaping from .237 last year to .252 thus far.
That TAv paints him as just a touch below average as an offensive performer, which still does represent a source of frustration, even if he has managed to build on virtually every single statistical output from 2016. If anything, there’s something to be said for his 1.9 WARP after a year where he registered a figure of exactly 0.0, with not even his defense able to save his shoddy performance at the plate. So at least in a general sense, there’s some room for optimism and maybe even a little bit of satisfaction where Heyward’s offense is concerned.
But, once you begin to dig a little deeper, that optimism tends to dissipate.
Despite the improved numbers, seemingly across the board, 2017 has still represented a very up-and-down type year for Heyward. A strong start left us with optimism, igniting several think pieces (including multiple by yours truly) declaring that the Cubs’ big money free agent of the 2015-16 offseason had figured it out. But he followed a .279 April up with a .222 May, with the latter a month in which he made soft contact over 30 percent of the time. The following three months featured average marks about at or just a touch below .260, with his recent September stretch of .286 representing his best month since the one that opened the season.
BABIP hasn’t worked in his favor, but it’s difficult to post impressive BABIP figures when you’re making soft contact at an extremely high rate. FanGraphs has his first half Soft% at about 25 percent, with his second-half mark to this point at about 26 percent, and with the bookend months of the year both set to come in over 30 percent. It’s extremely difficult to be considered a consistent on-base threat when you’re walking below your career average (7.8% against a 10.3% career average) and making soft contact at such a high rate. While Heyward’s .324 OBP represents an increase, it’s obviously still quite a ways away from the years when he was reaching base at a .350 clip or above.
At the same time, there are some positive elements of Heyward’s game. He’s been among the more “clutch” hitters on the Cubs in 2017. Regardless of however clutch might be measured, he’s managed to find success with runners on and runners in scoring position. According to FanGraphs, he’s hit .263 with runners in scoring position and .262 in situations that would be considered high leverage. With two outs and RISP, he’s hitting over .320. There’s value in that in itself. Of course, his park-adjusted offense looks better with RISP than in high leverage situations, which is an intriguing element as well. Nonetheless, the fact that he’s able to perform in these situations at all, on a team that, in a general sense, has had some issues with runners in scoring position this season, does lend itself to optimism surrounding his offensive value.
Not that that optimism is always as easy to come by. The expectation for Heyward at the plate has largely been that of a softer groundball to the second base side of the field, as many became so accustomed to last season. While the improvements have been evident, as he’s established more consistency in his ability to make contact and perform with runners in scoring position, it still remains a question if we’ll ever see Heyward emerge on the offensive side in the way that he performed in Atlanta and his one year in St. Louis. Perhaps his mechanics are just thrashed (to use a technical term) to the point where he’ll never be able to generate strong contact on a consistent basis, which set up the updated expectations that we’ve been forced to settle for in the last two years.
In the interim, Heyward’s defense is obviously going to keep him in the lineup on an everyday basis. His defense has the ability to outweigh a lot of uncertainties, both on the offensive and defensive sides, presented by the potential alternatives. And it really is a tremendous asset. But it’s worth wondering to what extent it actually outweighs the frustration of watching Heyward plate appearance after plate appearance. If that apparent prowess with RISP manifests itself in the postseason, though, few will complain about another up-and-down year from such a prized free agent acquisition.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports