We Are Regal Radio co-founder and former Los Angeles Dodger scouting personnel Sean Terry breaks down the off-season moves for the Cubs and White Sox in preparation for the 2017 season. Read his previous post on the White Sox here.
Oh, what a difference a year makes.
This time last year, the Chicago Cubs turned the baseball world on its head when they dialed up Jolly Saint Nick himself and convinced him to bring an early Christmas gift to Chicago in the form of Jason Heyward.
Fresh off a top-15 MVP season and a 6.5 Wins Above Replacement campaign in 2015, Jason Heyward parlayed his best season as a professional into an inner divisional coup when he abandoned ship from Cubs nemesis, St. Louis Cardinals, to join the boys in blue for a season to remember.
While every Cubs fan’s Christmas stocking stuffer this year will likely include some random piece of memorabilia and a Cubs World Series DVD for the time capsule, a lasting undertone to the 2016 season and likely sub-narrative to said DVD will undoubtedly point to an underwhelming first season for Heyward in a Cubs uniform.
$184 million dollar players aren’t supposed to hit .230 and drive in 49 runs.
To the credit of the entire organization, Jason Heyward’s rough first season was mitigated by a murder’s row squad built around him that refused to lose. All was forgiven when the Cubs reached the top of baseball’s mountain and planted their flag in 2016, but fans and Heyward alike definitely won’t forget his lack of “umph” at the plate in 2016.
To Heyward’s credit, despite not hitting worth a lick last season, he never carried his woes to the field. Heyward managed to maintain his stellar level of play defensively notching his third consecutive Gold Glove. In a celebratory 2016, manager Joe Maddon and fans alike gave Heyward a pass and instead acknowledged his defensive prowess and impact on other phases of the game.
Heyward is as gifted a talent as there is in the game defensively, but his pedestrian season at the plate still frustrated fans and himself to no end – so the painful process of reconstructing a broken swing quietly begins for Heyward this off-season.
History Doesn’t Lie
The Cubs’ reverse of the curse was likely one of the most stressful accomplishments in modern-era sports. Despite winning the World Series in his first season in Chicago, no one looked more relieved that the offseason finally arrived than Heyward thanks largely to those struggles mentioned above.
Baseball historians say nothing can prepare a player for the pressure of playing in Wrigley as a Cub for the first time. Over the course of the organization’s history, several “prized free agents” have met a fate similar to that of Heyward’s first season.
See the seasons of the following players for further evidence: Candy Maldonado (1993), Todd Hundley (2001), Moises Alou (2002), Cliff Floyd (2007) and Milton Bradley (2009).
Given the long-standing trend of rough first seasons and weak production by power hitting acquisitions, perhaps we can chalk up some of Heyward’s 2016 challenges to the first year adjustment, where predominant day game scheduling during home contests create a difficult adjustment for players unconditioned for such a baseball outlier.
But here’s to crumpling up outliers and throwing them out the window.
A Power Hitter’s DNA
Heyward was once a highly touted prospect whom analysts projected prodigious future power numbers, based largely on his athletic 6’5” – 240lb frame and a solid start to his career.
Unfortunately the power numbers have never really materialized for Heyward. With exception of the 2012 season where he hit 27 HR’s and drove in 82 RBI, Heyward has never surpassed 20 HR’s in his career with 2016 seeing him bottom out with just 7 long balls.
A side by side look at the progression of Heyward’s stance at the plate from 2010 to now reveal drastic changes to his load (lower half positioning), as well as his hand placement and swing path to the ball.
Since breaking into the league in 2010, Heyward’s load has opened up noticeably while his hands have dropped lower and are now positioned closer to his body than any other point in his career. Due to such changes, Heyward quite simply lost his sweet spot and missed on a ton on balls on the lower half of the zone – a place in the zone considered cash for players his size.
Not only did Heyward struggle to find consistent contact but he also consistently struggled to find adequate plate coverage on the outer third of the zone, something else that should never happen to a player 6’5” tall. Moreover, when Heyward did make contact on balls in the lower zone, more times than not he only managed to muster weak contact due to inadequate hand placement.
Notice a trend here?
As many frustrated Cubs fans observed, the end result for Heyward last season was an all or nothing singles hitter, trapped inside a power hitter’s body.
The Fix Is In…
Statistics and heat charts aside, not all was lost in Heyward’s offensive game in 2016. Despite the obvious with Heyward’s struggles last season, there is still some promise in the 27-year-old Heyward’s game. His prime is still ahead and this is something the Cubs organization hope to leverage as they dive into rebuilding the player’s shattered confidence this off-season.
To get a jump on things, while the Cubs front office brass took to D.C. for the Winter Meetings, word leaked that Jason Heyward took to warmer weather in Arizona determined to reconstruct a swing with the aid of the best left-handed hitter to ever play the game, one Barry Lamar Bonds.
So I guess it’s safe to say Heyward is flexing with the Killer B’ now. That’s good news for Cubs fans.
Bonds will be tasked with helping Heyward reestablish recognition of the strike zone along with helping him increase his hard contact rate. The end goal for Heyward in 2017 should be to get his Power/Speed number back to where it was in 2012 (23.6) when he posted top-10 finish in that category.
The Power/Speed number isn’t an oft-discussed statistic but it is quite simple to correlate. Players who post high numbers in this category typically create havoc offensively all over the field, something the Cubs will definitely need given the departure of leadoff hitter and Mr. You Go, We Go – Dexter Fowler.
To further put things in perspective here, note the fact that Jason Heyward ranks third overall in Power/Speed among active MLB players with seven seasons or less, just behind two of the games very best: Paul Goldschmidt and Mike Trout.
…Now Comes the Adjustment
While Heyward’s swing is a long ways away from where it needs to be, any good hitting coach will tell you the best way to build progress and instill confidence in a struggling hitter is to focus on the basics and build off what works.
For Heyward, this strangely enough may mean getting him to embrace not swinging the bat and reestablishing his understanding of the strike zone.
The conversation with the Killer B’ should go something like this, “Walks are okay bro’ – take what they give you. A walk does the same thing as a hit. Just keep the line moving and create opportunities for damage on the base paths.”
No one understood the correlation between walks, OBP% and runs scored better than Bonds who in his career notched over 2,500 walks and plated over 2,200 runs. That’s as close to a 1:1 ratio as you’ll find in baseball, especially for a player who played 22 seasons in the bigs.
Beyond walks, Bonds will also need to help Heyward develop a sounder game plan at the plate to better understand how, when & where to drive the ball when damage count opportunities arise.
Much of how pitchers will approach Heyward will depend on where Heyward hits in the order next season and who’s hitting behind him, but the fact remains, when Heyward gets the green light he’s got to bang it with authority.
Working with Bonds won’t make Heyward a 40 home run hitter automatically but the Cubs don’t necessarily need that from Heyward. The beef in the lineup will come from Bryant, Rizzo and Schwarber – the Cubs need Heyward to be more like Zobrist. Attack the lines and shoot gaps with like a bandit.
Improved plate coverage will help Heyward do more damage so expect to see Heyward close his stance and relax the hands a bit to have a more fluid path thru the zone and hit behind balls better.
For the old heads, think more: Eddie Murray, Joe Morgan, and Harold Baines. For those fans in their mid-30’s and younger, think more: Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Abreu and Robinson Cano – all lefty hitters who had less the violent plunge and more the effortless rock, almost dance-like, at the plate before squaring balls up.
To better explain the science behind my logic, I point to an earlier post where we acknowledged the dawn of sabermetrics and the impact of Bill James.
This time the statistic that comes to mind is Secondary Average. According to baseball definition, Secondary Average is a statistic that attempts to measure a player’s contribution to an offense in ways not reflected in batting average.
The formula is simple: (Extra bases on hits+Walks+Stolen Bases)/At bats.
Ironically, secondary average can reflect similarly to a player’s batting average; however, there are extreme instances where there can be sizable discrepancy between the two figures, where a secondary average eclipses the traditional batting average sizably.
In Heyward’s case, the Secondary Average formula and an adjusted plate approach next season should mirror the same one we identified during the NLDS series versus the Giants. During that time we broke down Heyward’s 2016 spray charts and identified the left-center field power alley as the optimal approach and hitting direction for J-Hey.
Left-center has always been the power alley for lefties at Wrigley. No one understood that better than Bonds who during his time managed to hit 47 home runs versus the Cubs, 28 of which occurred at Wrigley with roughly half of those going oppo’ (opposite field).
As that approach goes, so will pull side opportunities go for Heyward. But not to get too far along that path, we just a need a little magic to take hold with Bonds and Heyward before fans can expect to see Heyward calling his shots.
Here’s to Christmas coming early again for Chicago Cubs fans.
Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio; Sean Terry is a co-founder of We Are Regal Radio