For the second consecutive spring, one of the biggest stories, and one of the more watched aspects in Mesa, is the changes (and resulting effects) of Jason Heyward’s swing. The study of hand-placement, starting points, stride, has gone so far beyond Zapruder-like that even the most closeted conspiracy theorist is saying, “Man, those guys are weird!”
I’ve written more than I’d care to revisit about how none of Heyward’s changes are going to matter if they don’t result in him being more direct to the ball. Whenever I watch Heyward at the plate, I feel like his bat is going out and around to the ball, basically all arms, instead of shooting the knob of the bat toward the pitcher and staying inside of it. That’s how you get a hip rotation and legs involved, and it always feels like Heyward is sweeping at the ball instead of swinging at it. I know sweeping is on everyone’s mind these days thanks to the U.S. gold in Olympic Curling, and while I’m fascinated by curling, that’s not what we’re after here.
BUT THAT’S NOT WHY YOU CALLED.
Here’s the scary thing: All of Heyward’s swing changes just might not matter, and he may be permanently lost to the abyss.
Heyward’s descent amongst the rock people isn’t all that common in the majors in recent history, and certainly not at age 27. That’s when you’re supposed to be in your prime, and Heyward’s gone the opposite way. Before arriving in Chicago, Heyward had put up four consecutive seasons of 100+ wRC+ seasons, and five overall. He’s been below 90 the past two.
When looking over players who’ve had a similar history, only 18 players in the past 30 years have put up even just one 100+ wRC+ season, cratered for two below-100 years, and then bounced back to be above-average again. That’s out of 232 who have fallen off a cliff after being useful, or about 28 percent.
One example is local, which is Miguel Montero. Montero was a dynamic offensive catcher and saw his numbers fall apart in his last two seasons in Arizona. He bounced back in ’15 with the Cubs, even with a swing that looked like it might launch his spine into Strange Cargo at any time. But you know what happened after that.
Another recent example was A.J. Pierzynski in Atlanta in 2015. AJ had put up a 90 and a 71 wRC+ in the years before with three teams, and then rebounded in Georgia for a 111 mark. But this is more of a spike than a return to form, as Pierzynski was never a good offensive player, despite what your South Side-inclined friend might tell you.
And beyond that, no one has done it in the past 15 years other than those two.
When you try and tailor the search even more to what Heyward’s history has been, you’re going to feel even more vulnerable and shaky.
Only 31 players in history have put up five or more 100+ wRC+ seasons, and then cratered to consecutive below-90 seasons. And of those 31, only seven have then rebounded to be above average again. The last was Jeff Blauser in 1995. And yes, that was before he became a Cub, which you suspected anyway. So that’s none in 23 years.
If you change the parameters to fit Heyward’s profile even more, your food is gonna taste like chalk for a week. Only eight players in the past century have had one 120+ wRC+ season (Heyward had four), then consecutive <90 seasons, to return with even one more 120+ season. And no one, not one player, had four 120+ wRC+ seasons, nosedived into sub-90 seasons and ever had a 120 season or better again. Not a one. So any hope you had that Heyward could become the hitter he once was… well, let’s just say it would be a first.
The optimist would say there’s no record of anything happening until it does, and that’s basically what we’re going to hope for here. But precedent says that if you were good once, and then you suddenly “lost it,” you stay lost. It’s Sick Boy’s Unifying Theory Of Life. You get old, you can’t hack it anymore, and that’s it. Except Heyward isn’t old. It just appears he can’t hack it anymore.
Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports