As the discussion continues to persist over who will lead off these Chicago Cubs in 2018, there’s been some speculation that it could be Jason Heyward. Of course, this purely a hypothetical scenario and not likely something that the team is actively considering. However, given the right set of circumstances that would obviously feature a return to his pre-Chicago form, Heyward in the leadoff spot could be an ideal situation for the Cubs. This is something I’ve considered before, and given the recent speculation, I’m suddenly more inspired and confident delving into it a bit here.
Obviously there are few, if any, that have the desire to see Jason Heyward take record more plate appearances in 2018 than he has in each of the last two years. That’ll happen when your BP page over the past two seasons looks something like this:
There was some improvement over the course of 2017, which has been well-documented on this website and others. But when it comes down to it, it was still below average offensive output, both in the obvious/general sense, and according to figures like TAv and wRC+. His elite defense and whatever unquantifiable elements he brings to the clubhouse notwithstanding, Heyward’s offensive performance in Chicago hasn’t been reputable in any sense, let alone one that would warrant him legitimate consideration for the leadoff spot.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a completely absurd idea. Heyward spent the offseason between 2016 and 2017 refining his swing from a mechanical standpoint. Credit to him, but those tweaks he made didn’t quite come to fruition like most had hoped. This offseason, his focus has been more on the mental side of the game when working with new hitting coach Chili Davis. It’s going to be extraordinarily interesting to see how those changes pan out, especially considering how Heyward’s body language has looked at the plate over the last couple of years. If that commitment can have the sort of positive impact we’ve been waiting for, then a return to the Heyward previously sighted in Atlanta and St. Louis isn’t totally out of the question.
It’s an oversimplification of the situation, to be sure, but much of what Heyward did during those days as a hitter would make him quite an enticing piece for the top spot in the batting order. Three of Heyward’s four seasons prior to signing with the Cubs saw him go for a wRC+ of at least 120 and a TAv that was at least .280, including a .294 mark in St. Louis the year before he signed in Chicago. The following illustrates those four years, highlighted by some figures that could indicate just how intriguing an option he’d be for that situation if he can return to the form of old:
There’s a lot indicated by a skill set that can produce the type of numbers above, many of which lend themselves to a strong performance in the leadoff spot. Ideally, you want someone who can work the count, work their way on base, and make good contact out of the top spot. Heyward’s best OBP years, with the exception of his rookie year in 2010, came in 2014 and 2015. Three of those four years also feature hard contact rates of at least 29 percent, which easily surpasses that figure in either of his years with the Cubs. Add in the fact that Heyward has consistently demonstrated a quality approach, even in his down years with the Cubs, and there are some ideal qualities. He typically grades out nicely as a baserunner as well, even if he’s not known as a base stealer.
While the batted ball distribution hasn’t changed a ton in Chicago, getting back to a point where he’s hitting to multiple points on the field would also help Heyward for leadoff duty. Three of the four seasons above featured opposite field percentages of at least 24 percent, including an Oppo% of 26.2 in 2014. Those are high numbers for a guy who’s become synonymous with the soft, pulled grounder to second base. A level of unpredictability, in addition to a return to form on the OBP/contact side, would be an added tool in Heyward’s arsenal in the no. 1 spot.
The benefits of having Heyward in such a position are numerous. It would provide stability for a team that lacked it in that position in the order last year, with a rotation that featured Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, and Jon Jay, among others. It would allow the Cubs’ real run producers to remain lower in the order, where they can drive in the table-setters. Most of all, Heyward in the leadoff spot would be the real indicator of the formerly prized free agent turning a corner on the offensive side, avoiding the stagnation in the bottom half of the order that’s become associated with Heyward plate appearances.
Obviously, this is a tremendously optimistic take for a player that has given us very little reason to be optimistic. But I’ve been in Heyward’s camp virtually since Day 1, and I’ll die on the hill that says there’s still an above average offensive player still in there somewhere. He had a sustained track record of success prior to 2016, even if he was never quite an elite player with the stick. If he can recapture some of that in 2018, it presents an ideal situation for the Cubs in a number of ways. Perhaps the focus on the mental side is just the ticket for Jason Heyward, and we see a renewed presence and impact at the plate from no. 22 in 2018.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports