For most of the season, the story or narrative around Jason Heyward was that he’d finally come good with the bat. There seemed to be more power, there were better ABs, so much so that he got himself elevated to the leadoff spot. Where he was a crime against nature. And as the season went along, and we came to realize the flubber contained within the baseball, Heyward’s season didn’t seem to be so much a revival as it was just riding along with the tide. And in the end, it was pretty much the same completely average offensive season 2018 was. Except it didn’t come with stellar defense, though that really wasn’t his fault. Let’s take a trip, take a little trip…
147 games, 598 PAs
21 HR 78 RBI
11.5 BB% 18.7 K%
101 wRC+ .343 wOBA .772 OPS
-1.7 Defensive Runs Saved 1.9 WAR
Tell Me A Story: On the plus side, Heyward’s 21 homers are by far the most he’s hit as a Cub. His on-base was the best of his Cubs career. His slugging was, again, the highest of his career on the Northside. So that all sounds good. The problem is that EVERYONE was hitting more homers than they had in years, which raised the slugging percentage of just about anyone. So when you look at league averaging stats like wRC+ or OPS+, Heyward’s doesn’t stand out in the least.
Still, there are some caveats. Heyward’s August was simply woeful (58 wRC+), but that’s where he was installed in the leadoff spot. Now, I’m not sure why batting somewhere else should make any difference, because the idea is still the same. Have a good AB, try to get on base, and try to hit the ball hard if you can. But it obviously does, and because it’s become such a Bermuda Triangle area for the Cubs, there might even be a bigger mental block for anyone trying to take it on. We’ll just leave it as something weird just happens there. When batting 5th, 6th, or 7th, Heyward’s wRC+ was 162, 120, and 101.
Second, if only against righties, Heyward’s numbers look really good. .350 wOBA and a 115 wRC+. And seeing as how he had 112 PAs against lefties, you can certainly say he was trotted out against southpaws just far too often. You don’t want to admit Heyward is just a platoon player based on his paycheck, but we can see how the season played out. It’s what he is. Perhaps the next manager will see these, or more likely be shown these, and only keep Heyward in spots where he has success.
Heyward saw a big jump in his walks this year, but also a pretty big drop in his contact numbers. His contact-rates were still above league average, though. There was an uptick, and not a small one, in his swinging strikes. A small crawl up in that category in fastballs is worrying for a player who crossed the threshold into his 30s, because that doesn’t tend to get better as a player ages (what does though, really?). The bigger uptick is whiffs on sliders is also a warning sign, as it might suggest Heyward was starting to inch a little more into cheating on fastballs, or getting there. At least trying to get started earlier, which left him susceptible to pitches that look like a fastball until breaking down.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Heyward’s season is the drop in defense. But that almost all comes from his shift to center, which started even before the acquisition of Nicholas Castellanos, as Albert Almora‘s skeleton fell out and forced more people into right as Heyward moved to center so the Cubs could get any offense out of those spots. Heyward still grades out above average in right. He wasn’t a disaster in center, but he’s not a plus fielder there. Which is why some like me have argued against re-signing Castellanos, because the outfield defense would be so bad. We’ll see how the Cubs feel about it. Again, as he moves into his 30s, it’s not very likely that Heyward is going to get better in center, and probably not even in right field. But he can be a plus right fielder for a while yet, you’d think.
Contract: $21M in 2020, signed through 2023. Has opt-out.
Welcome Back Or Boot In The Ass: The Cubs don’t have much of a choice here obviously. Heyward is not going to opt-out, unless he’s the nicest guy in the world. Trading him isn’t really an option either, unless some team sees intangibles that only they can see and Heyward is moved to agree to such a move. And why would he? Also, his adult presence in the clubhouse probably shouldn’t be overlooked, as the Cubs don’t have a lot of vets who’ve been around long enough to be comfortable voicing anything.
So he’s going to be on the team, and that’s not a bad thing as long as he’s only asked to do what he does well. Which is play right field, hit in the back half of the order, and only against righties. That probably affects what the Cubs will do this offseason, as they’ll need to find someone(s) who can play right and center against left-handed pitchers (which might keep Happ around?). If they keep crowbarring Heyward in the lineup against lefties and/or in center, they’re going to have some if not all the same results.
As Heyward ages, he’s going to have to adjust to get to more fastballs somehow. Shorten or quicken his swing, which is hard to do at his age and something he’s already tried to do once. Being vulnerable against sliders is probably only going to be more of a feature in the coming years. It won’t wreck him yet, though, or it shouldn’t. Heyward is still a plus to have on the team if used properly.