When I found him in the visiting clubhouse on a Friday afternoon at Fenway Park, Jason Heyward was hunched over an iPad, broad shoulders squared, eyes locked intently on video of one of his plate appearances two nights earlier in Pittsburgh. He'd reached base three times in five tries that night, with a single and two walks, but it was his sixth-inning groundout to first that he was watching over and over again.
At 27 years old, Heyward is still young for an eight-year veteran. After signing an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Chicago Cubs before the 2016 season, the bottom fell out of his offensive game, and after months of looking wholly lost at the plate, all arms and legs and moving parts, he finished his debut campaign in Chicago with the fourth-worst wRC+ in the entire game. He wasn't just an underperformer on a big contract. He was bad.
But Heyward took the momentum that came out of the Cubs' title and his dramatic Game 7 speech at Progressive Field, and threw himself headlong into a down-to-the-studs overhaul of both his swing and his overall approach to the game. So far, it's working. Heyward is hitting a perfectly solid .279/.340/.407 on the young season, with three home runs and his usual brand of show-stopping defense in right field.
Big adjustments are nothing new for Heyward. After making his big league debut just a few months shy of the legal drinking age back in 2010, he's had to do an awful lot of growing up fast in an environment that's as high-pressure as it gets. He's used to having to reinvent himself in real time. And he's ready for this year's challenge.
"Life, man," he said, when asked if he'd been through other challenging experiences that had prepared him for last year's struggles. "That's all it is. Life will do that to you."
He recalled playing with 18-year-olds on a travel team at age 14, and feeling he was unable to catch up to their level. He remembered hitting .170-something to start his second minor league season at High-A Myrtle Beach, and wondering if he was good enough to make it. And he remembered last year, where he felt he was falling into a dangerously passive approach at the plate.
"This offseason, I did a lot of meditation," he said. "You think meditation, outside looking in, and you think you're doing 30 minutes or 40 minutes. But it's just like, five minutes, and it's all about being aware. Think about it: When you're a kid, and somebody pushes you, you don't think about it. You just react and you're aware of your body really well. Well, you train your mind for hitting, you train your mind for running, and you train your mind for defense. This is the same thing, just for being aware."
That new mental clarity has allowed Heyward to start refocusing his swing on his hands, where his swing started back in little league, instead of in his arms or elbow, and get more aggressive early in the count.
"That's always been me as a hitter," he said. "Focusing on back-elbow a lot instead can kind of give you tension, trying to be so inside the ball. And that's kind of where I got to—the point where I'm trying to be shorter, and trying to be really direct to the ball, but I was just being too cautious. And it got to the point where it was too locked up. So now I'm just trying to be free and relaxed, and get that whip back in my swing, which of course starts with the hands."
Indeed, Heyward's swing rate is way up to 46 percent this year, where it sat back in 2012 (when he hit 27 home runs for the Braves) and a full five points higher than the low-40s mark it's been at for the past few years. He's making better contact in the zone, too, as pitchers realize they can't get a high fastball past him the way they did last year. That said, he knows his early success will lead to new changes in the way pitchers come after him, and he's ready.
"It's a game of adjustments always, regardless of how things are going," Heyward said. "Hitters, you've got to change the pitchers; pitchers, you've got to change the hitters. When you're aggressive in the strike zone and you force pitchers to feel like, 'Well, I can't just throw any pitch in the zone,' you force them to make quality pitches. And so they're going to try to make quality pitches and get me to chase outside of the zone."
His teammates, who stood by him steadfastly during his struggle, are now delighted to see him succeed. That degree of loyalty is not always a given in the pressure-cooker world of big league ball, where one man's lost job is another's opportunity, and it's a testament to both the Cubs' unusually tight-knit clubhouse and Heyward's own commanding personality that he earned the respect of his teammates from day one and never once lost it despite his struggles.
"He's a baseball player, you know," said Heyward's fellow outfield veteran Jon Jay. "There's things he does that don't pop up in the box score, that go unnoticed, and really show the player that he is and how he affects the game. His leadership, the way he runs the bases, the way he has tough at bats. I know last year the results weren't what he wanted, but Jay's just doing what he's always done, which is be the man."
Heyward, for his part, is understandably glad to be hitting again, even if his Game 7 speech probably went a fair way towards winning the fanbase over anyway. "I mean, the whole year, people were being supportive," Heyward said. "They saw that I gave a damn. They saw my effort every day, how I am on and off the field."
But there was some natural tension between what the city expected from their $184 million man and what they got at the plate. That changed after the speech.
"The best way I can describe our fanbase, when I get asked about it, is just genuine," Heyward said. "Genuine. They care, and they don't take winning for granted, and you kind of see that. We're all looking for our chance to affect the game, chance to affect the team, and it's cool that it worked out that way. I mean, [the speech] wasn't drawn or written up, but it was cool to see people appreciate it."
The hitting will help, too. For the first time in a year, Heyward is hitting the ball with authority. But, in a sense nothing has changed. He's reinventing himself in the same way he's always done. As I walked away from our interview, I saw him pick the iPad right back up.
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