Why Jason Heyward Will Bounce Back

Jason Heyward had a bad season offensively in 2016, but there’s little evidence that says his struggles will continue next year.

Jason Heyward hitting for the Cubs (via Getty Images)

On December 15, 2015, the Chicago Cubs signed outfielder Jason Heyward to an eight year contract worth $184 million, with hopes of winning their first World Series since 1908.

And win the World Series they did, beating the Cleveland Indians in a dramatic seven game series. But little of their playoff success, or regular season success was due to Heyward.

Heyward’s mega-contract hasn’t looked great for the Cubs — at least not so far. Heyward slashed .230/.306/.325 for the North Siders, while only hitting seven home runs. That’s not what anyone expected from J-Hey, who had slashed .268/.353/.431, averaging just over 16 home runs per season (19 per 162 games) in his six big league seasons prior to joining the squad.

Why was Heyward such a let down in 2016? Many people are saying it’s because his swing wasn’t working out for him, and while his swing may not look so pretty, I’m not convinced it’s the reason.

From a batted ball perspective, Heyward’s 2016 season wasn’t uncharacteristic for him by any means. His soft contact percentage, medium contact percentage, and hard contact percentage were all within five percent of his career averages. His pull percentage and opposite field percentage were both within a couple percent of his career averages, as were his ground ball percentage, line drive percentage, and fly ball percentage. Nothing (except his HR/FB) looks that abnormal in the following chart:

While his soft contact percent was up a few percent, it doesn’t look like it could affect his numbers that much, as he produced nearly the same batted balls as he usually did. He just wasn’t getting the results.

Heyward even referenced it mid-season, and as a Cubs fan, I was furious. It felt like, at the time, he was just making excuses, but he was actually pretty close to the truth. He said in July “when you do it right and don’t get results, you keep doing it. I feel like I’ve done it but not gotten the results […] If you’re hitting the ball hard and not getting results, what else can you do?”

When Jason Heyward made hard contact last year, he hit for an average of .456, while slugging .825. Instead of looking at league averages, since Heyward is faster than the average player, I’ll look at Heyward’s career averages from 2010–2015, his first six seasons in the majors. Those six years of sample size should be enough for this. In that span, when Heyward made hard contact, he hit .568 and slugged 1.159, much better than what he actually did in his first year with the Cubs.

If Heyward hit for the exact same amount of hard contact as he did in 2016 (26.4 percent), but with the results he averaged in his first six seasons, the outfielder would’ve added 13 hits and 38 total bases to his seasonal numbers. That doesn’t seem like much, only an extra hit every couple of weeks, but it adds up.

How about for medium contact? Again, Heyward underperformed his career average. He hit .250 and slugged .284 last year when making medium contact, compared to his .280 and .325 marks from his first six seasons. Again, had he performed to his career averages, nothing more and nothing less, while making the exact same amount of medium contact (46.6 percent), he would’ve had another six hits and eight total bases.

When applying the same process to soft contact, you’ll see Heyward actually outperformed his career average, hitting .160 and slugging .168 compared to his career averages of .143 and .155. That’s not a huge difference, but is necessary to include for the sake of completeness. Therefore, if he performed to his career averages when making soft contact, Heyward would’ve lost two hits and two total bases.

Jason Heyward in a game vs the Washington Nationals (via Getty Images)

So, adding all of the hit and total base numbers we have now, we see Heyward lost 17 hits and 44 total bases due to his bad luck, or whatever other factors caused him to underperform his averages. Instead of getting 122 hits, Heyward manages 139, and instead of 172 total bases, he gets 216. Plug those values into the appropriate formulas for batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and we show Heyward should have slashed .262/.335/.406, much prettier than his actual line of .230/.306/.325.

Lastly, we see from the chart that his HR/FB percentage was way down. Why was that? Well, on fly balls, his soft contact percentage was nearly at his career average. However, 40.4 percent of his fly balls were hit up the middle, and only one of the 59 went over the fence. His wOBA on those such balls in play was only .181, the worst mark in his career by over 60 points. This has to do with his low hard contact percentage on fly balls up the middle, the second lowest mark of his career. Maybe his “fixed” swing gets that back to his career average.

I’d expect his 2017 season to look closer to the former than the latter, as his luck will likely average out to what he had in his first six seasons. With the aforementioned progression in sights, along with his “new and improved” swing, his defensive value, and his base running, expect Heyward to be worth the $28.2 million he’s due to make next year.

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