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How Jason Heyward and the Cubs Have Coped With His Awful Season

In typical 2016 Cubs fashion, Chicago has accentuated the positives, and basically acted like Heyward has not been a terrible hitter this year.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

When the Chicago Cubs signed Jason Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million contract last off-season, they figured they were getting an elite defender in right field, a great teammate for their young stars, and at least an average to above-average hitter for the middle of their lineup. Well, Heyward was an elite defender in 2016, as expected. He was a great teammate, too. He was also, to an astonishing degree, a truly terrible hitter.


In fact, as measured by True Average (TAv), a catchall offensive statistic that attempts to capture a player's total contributions at the plate in a single number, Heyward was the sixth worst qualified hitter in the Major Leagues in 2016, well behind such luminaries as Danny Espinosa, Freddy Galvis, and Yonder Alonso. He was also by far the worst everyday hitter on his Chicago team.

That trend has continued in the postseason. Even as the Cubs have advanced to within two victories of a historic World Series win, Heyward has struggled mightily. He has just five hits in 39 at-bats in the playoffs, only two of them for extra bases. And yet, if you spend any time talking to his teammates about his contributions in 2016, you'd think Heyward had just had a season for the ages.

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"He's as well-rounded a player as you're gong to meet," David Ross, one of the club's leaders on and off the field, told me at Wrigley Field this week. "That's why he got the contract he did. He runs the bases well, he reads situations as well as anyone in the game, and of course his glove is Gold Glove–caliber out there in right [field]. The way he helps the young guys, too, that's a testament to his character and the way he goes about his business. He's been a huge part of this team's success this year."

And there you have it, in Ross's statement: the case for Jason Heyward's value, hitting be damned. Appreciating Heyward at this point, when his offensive contributions compare more to an average pitcher's than an outfielder's, requires a dose of the persistent optimism that has defined the Cubs this year, but there is indeed a case to be made for him. Sabermetric-minded analysts will marvel at Heyward's glove, even as they caution that we don't know enough about defensive statistics to say for sure that his brilliance in right field makes up for the debits incurred by his season at the plate. Old-school pundits, for their part, will be a bit more comfortable giving Heyward credit for his off-field contributions, particularly his mentorship of young players, but they'll also wonder loudly about why he hasn't been able to live up to his contract.


Heyward may not be able to hit, but he can still do this. Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Any talk of Heyward's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season needs to come with the caveat that for now, it's just one bad season. His teammates are especially aware of that fact. "What he's gone through this year is tough," said Jon Lester, who knows something about living up to big contracts, "but we know the work that he's put in, we understand the game, and we know that this game isn't always going to be kind to you. One thing that's for sure, right now, is that his teammates always have his back, and that dude right there"—he pointed a thumb over his shoulder and looked me directly in the eye—"I'd go to the end of the world for him, man. He's busted his butt, and done everything that you could ever ask from for a teammate, on days he's playing and days he isn't. He's one of the good guys in this game."

That's a few miles away from your usual bullshit answer about battling through it and grinding it out. Heyward's teammates mean what they're saying. They love him, and they're protective of him. His fellow veterans aren't fazed by his hitting, and they're sure it'll come around in time. (It helps, of course, that the Cubs won 103 games, even with Heyward a non-entity at the plate.) His younger teammates, meanwhile, couldn't stop talking about the way he'd helped them this year.

"J-Hey was really big at picking me up this year," Matt Szczur, Heyward's young colleague in the outfield, said. "If I was struggling, he'd get in there and say, 'Szcz, keep going. You got this.' Coming from a veteran, and a guy that's been around the league a lot, that was huge for me."


Addison Russell, before Game 4, told me much the same thing. In a game that's built so much on failure, seeing the way Heyward has dealt with failure—very public failure, at that—has clearly made a difference in the baseball development of a number of the Cubs' young stars.

There's also, no doubt, an element of professional sympathy at play. Every hitter has had days or weeks when they just couldn't seem to work out their swing, and they're no doubt gritting their teeth a little bit at seeing Heyward have a season-long funk of the same kind. He's never looked truly comfortable at the plate all year, and his swing—with its many, many moving parts—is a hard one to tinker with in-season, much less in the World Series. Heyward is guaranteed to stay in Chicago two more years, barring the near-zero chance of a trade, and he'll no doubt take this off-season to fully rehabilitate a swing, and more broadly an approach at the plate, that's just not working.

One curious feature of Heyward's struggles this year is that, unlike most slumping hitters, he isn't flailing away at a steady diet of breaking balls. In fact, as a percentage of total pitches seen, Heyward has faced more fastballs in 2016 (65 percent) than in any other season of his career. Last year, for example, he saw heaters about 60 percent of the time, which was more in line with his career averages. That jump in the hard stuff suggests that pitchers aren't scared of his ability to turn on a pitch down the middle or convinced, to a great degree, that he can catch up to the pitches in the first place. Adjusting his complicated swing to keep pitchers honest on the fastball should and probably will be one of Heyward's top priorities this off-season.


Still a good teammate. Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

In the meantime, he's still with his brothers in the Cubs' clubhouse. "Jay's a great teammate, man," said John Lackey, before Game Three. "He's a guy, whether he's in the lineup or not, he's going to be on the bench cheering for the boys or ready to come in for defense or hitting, whatever that is. He's a professional and just a great dude, and a great guy you want to play with. He'll be just fine."

What does the man himself think? It's hard to say. When asked if his first season in Chicago lived up to expectations, he did the smart thing and talked about the team.

"This season has more than lived up to expectations, man," Heyward said. "I expected before the season to get to the World Series, and now we're here. It's been awesome to see the fans, the passion they have for the team and the game. That's what we play for."

Heyward, who's a steady character in general, seems more able than most to compartmentalize. He's still getting those tremendous jumps in right field, still showing off his tremendous arm, and still ranging far beyond what can reasonably be expected of an outfielder.

"Once you get on the other side of the ball," he said, "what's happening at the plate shuts off. I know I can do what I have to do out in the outfield, and I haven't been pressing at all out there." Which, I suppose, implicitly admits to a little bit of pressing at the plate. But we knew that already.

Heyward's 2016, for all intents and purposes, is over already. Even if he manages a big hit in the remainder of the World Series, it won't erase the memory of an awful year at the plate. It would go a long way toward rehabilitating his image with the fan base (and to that end, he did make a tremendous catch in Game 5 Sunday night), but in the eyes of his teammates Heyward doesn't need rehabilitating at all.

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