Early returns show Cubs’ Jason Heyward having better offensive season

SHARE Early returns show Cubs’ Jason Heyward having better offensive season
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In two full seasons and a nearly a month of a third, Cubs fans have seen three Jason Heywards. A weak season in 2016 led to a retooled swing in 2017, and now we’re seeing a change in approach under new hitting coach Chili Davis.

With the caution that April statistics are such small samples that you shouldn’t read too much into them, Heyward has been an offensive plus for the Cubs with peripheral numbers that reflect changes in his game.

The .262 batting average and .762 OPS Heyward has posted so far aren’t markedly different from his .279 and .747 last March and April. But the way he’s gotten there is different. He is hitting more flies and pulling the ball less.

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Heyward’s defensive numbers have hit a rough patch with minus-3 runs saved. That, more than anything, is likely to be an April mirage, given his history as a defensive whiz. He had 18 runs saved to rank second among major-league right fielders last season.

Let’s look at some offensive specifics:

wRC+ and platoon splits: By weighted runs created plus, which weights all offensive contributions and normalizes them so 100 is average, Heyward has been an above-average hitter at 114. If sustained, that would be a huge leap forward after 71 in 2016 and 88 in 2017.

It’s too early to attach much meaning to specifics, given the left-handed-hitting Heyward has only 22 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers, but he has had large platoon differences throughout his career. His .762 OPS can be broken down into a star-level .900 in 50 plate against right-handers and .473 against lefties.

Flies vs. grounders: During his career, Heyward’s grounder-to-fly ratio has been 1.52 — basically, three grounders for every two flies.

This March/April, he has turned that around. Of his fair balls, 48.1 percent have been flies, 38.9 percent have been grounders and 13.1 percent have been line drives. It was 32.7 percent flies, 47.4 percent grounders and 19.9 percent liners last season.

Heyward needs to raise his line-drive percentage, but it’s not that he isn’t hitting the ball hard. With 52.9 percent of his batted balls exceeding 95 mph, he ranks 19th in the majors, according to Baseball Savant data. That category is led by White Sox teammates Jose Abreu and Yoan Moncada.

Batted-ball location: Changes are small enough that an April mirage is possible, but Heyward has been pulling the ball less than last season.

In 2017, 46.3 percent of Heyward’s batted balls were pulled to the right-field side, with 33.9 percent up the middle and 19.8 percent to left. This season, pulls are down to 38.9 percent, with another 38.9 percent up the middle and 22.2 percent the opposite way.

Whether Heyward can sustain a 114 wRC+ and be a offensive force for the first time with the Cubs is something he’ll have to prove over a full season. But the early numbers suggest a change in approach that has been a hit so far.

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