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The Heyward Bet

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A Character Bet on Jason Heyward

When the Chicago Cubs gave Jason Heyward the second-biggest contract ever for an outfielder, they knew that he wasn’t a great offensive player. They obviously did not know he would go into the slump from hell, reaching a point where he looked utterly helpless at the plate.

But his career line was .268/.353/.431, and his power had mysteriously dwindled.

They bet on him anyway because he’s a world-class defender, a well-rounded player who helps teams in many quiet ways, and because of his makeup.

Let’s face it, the Cubs bet on Jason Heyward’s character. That bet is still on the table.

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30 Responses to The Heyward Bet

  1. Rob Smith says:

    The reason he changed his approach after his rookie year is that management wanted him to swing more with runners on base to get RBIs and be less patient. Much like the stuff you hear about Joey Votto, but he was a rookie. So, being the high character guy that he is, he tried to do what they wanted. The result was not good. It was Braves management stupidity that hurt him. That’s not to say that he didn’t have some success after that, but his second year was a disaster and he’s been fighting to get his swing back ever since.

  2. Matthew says:

    When you win, it’s going with character. When you lose, it’s old-fogey loyalty to a guy whose metrics stink.

  3. invitro says:

    I’m most curious to see if he goes below replacement for a long period of time, and if the Cubs continue to start him.

    • SDG says:

      For what it’s worth, I don’t think Theo will start a guy just because he’s expensive. What I don’t get is why Heyward isn’t moved up the defensive spectrum if his glove is so valuable.

    • MikeN says:

      Theo signed JD Drew who rewarded him with the $14 million Grand Slam and other postseason clutch shots.

      Kenny Lofton was supposedly a cancer in the clubhouse, but his teams seemed to do well.

  4. SDG says:

    Here’s my question: can character be shown, statistically, to improve team performance? I know that question makes me sound like some nerd villain caricature in a bad sports movie, but I’m curious. I’m not talking about how Heyward practices and changes his swing. Of course if you work hard you will be a better player; no one has disputed that, ever.

    I mean the leadership stuff. The rousing speeches in the clubhouse. Can the stats of the rest of the team (slash line, BB rate, etc) be affected by the attitude of his teammate. I mean, probably, right? Is it measurable, like the way a really good hitting coach can make everyone’s hitting better? Because that’s what Theo is counting on, isn’t it.

    • invitro says:

      “Because that’s what Theo is counting on, isn’t it.” — I don’t think so. Heyward had 6.2 and 6.5 WAR the years right before his contract. And if Epstein really thinks Heyward’s 2016 was one of the greatest defensive seasons ever, he probably thinks those WAR numbers are at least correct, and probably even underestimate Heyward’s defense. Sure, Epstein’s probably just doing the usual smoke-blowing. But this paying for “character” is a load of bullsneezes. Epstein paid for his 6.2 & 6.5 WAR seasons — tangibles, not intangibles.

      • Matt says:

        I totally agree. The bet wasn’t on Heyward’s intangibles, but that he’d continue to perform as he had. The intangibles are what now give the Cubs hope he can turn it around. But this whole article is based on a false premise.

      • Patrick says:

        Yes, Heyward’s defense is fantastic. That said, I’d imagine the thought process was that worst-case, Heyward would be a great fielding, good baserunning, middling power guy like he was from 2013-2015, and best case, he’d improve a bit with the bat. That he’d become a total disaster with the bat was not in the cards

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I think bad character can probably hurt a team but I doubt that good character really helps. I assume most players have at least decent character. I don’t even know what leadership means in baseball, although players talk about it a lot. If you are a soldier in combat, leadership means knowing what the hell you are doing and not getting people get killed unnecessarily. In business, it means having some kind of vision and implementing it. But what does character or leadership mean for a baseball player? That he tries hard? No offense to Heyward, but if I had to choose between a jerk like Barry Bonds and a nice guy like Jason Heyward, I think I would pick Bonds.

      • invitro says:

        “But what does character or leadership mean for a baseball player?” — Leadership might mean mostly leading by example, doing things that benefit the team, but might be risky or unpleasant on an individual level. Like Pete Rose agreeing to play third base in 1975. Or Heyward going to work in Arizona a week after the World Series. But there’s negative leadership too, like Dick Allen forming a faction on his teams to fight the team-oriented guys. And then there’s Jose Canseco, who was definitely being a leader of some sort when he turned his teammates (and non-teammates) on to steroids. In each case, leadership means a high-status player taking a stance on how a big leaguer should act, and encouraging, perhaps passively, the lower-status guys to act in the same way.

        • SDG says:

          That’s pretty much what I was saying. Pete Rose hustles, it means Joe Morgan and Dave Concepcion hustle, it makes everyone’s stats go up. Of course, Jose Canseco was obsessed with baseball and worked out hard and did everything he could to give himself an edge. You could certainly say his attitude got his teammates hitting more homers. It’s just what he did was illegal and against the rules and he’s a raging ass. That’s the thing with character arguments. People like Pete Rose and they don’t like Canseco. What they actually do isn’t the point.

          Corporate culture matters. If the Cubs expect everyone to show up at ST early, focus, not just run through the motions, work on their own time, etc, then that trickles down to the players. If that’s valuable to them, even better that they scout for players like that. But doesn’t it assume the rest of the team lack that spark, if it takes Heyward giving a rousing clubhouse speech to get it from everyone else?

    • Mike says:

      I’m willing to accept that leadership and character matter, but it’s difficult if not outright impossible to know who the good leaders are and what they contribute unless you are in the clubhouse most days, which rules out fans and most writers. I am also a skeptic whenever I hear writers and commentators tell me what a great leader someone is, just because of too many examples of guys were lauded ad nauseum by media but despised by their teammates.

      • SDG says:

        I definitely agree with this. Also, plenty of players might be liked and respected by their teammates but be a bad influence, and plenty might be not well-liked but still raise the level of play.

      • Crazy Diamond says:

        I agree with you, Mike. But there are some guys that are pretty much universally praised by teammates and coaches for being positive role models for younger players on their team. Exhibit A would be Torii Hunter. According to numerous players, Torii taught them the ropes of being in the Big Leagues and helped with them gain confidence. Those kinds of things can make a big difference in terms of succeeding or failing as a young player. Hence, Torii was valuable in the clubhouse (and for general morale). 162 games makes for a long season and having a veteran guy in the clubhouse to keep everyone focused is extremely important. I think that that can be the difference between a team that underperforms versus a team that over-achieves. I’m sure there are many more examples of guys like Torii Hunter, but his name was the first one that popped into my head.

        • Mike says:

          I was making an overgeneralization, but yes I agree that there are some players widely recognized by their peers as great leaders. when I wrote my comment, I was thinking more about guys like Steve Garvey, who the media constantly raved about as a great person and leader, but who was despised by his teammates.

  5. Cal says:

    Joe knows Theo Epstein personally, so I have to give some credence to his bullshit meter – yet I’m highly skeptical that Theo believes that the Cubs don’t win the World Series without Heyward’s rain-delay speech in Game 7. It sounds like something you say to prop up one of your players. I mean, honestly, to claim that Schwarber, Rizzo, Zobrist, et al – the guys who actually came through in the 10th inning – needed Heyward’s pep talk to perform well in that situation strikes me as kind of an insult to them.

  6. Darrel says:

    Here is the thing about leadership that nobody really wants to admit. If you can’t play you can’t lead. Maybe you have some residual reputational credit when you come to a new team but eventually if you can’t go out and actually do the things that help a team win games then you get tuned out. There is a reason that nearly every team captain in every sport is a top of the roster guy. Heyward goes 70ops+ again and the only thing any speech he gives will encourage are eye rolls.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I think they call it leading by example. If you can’t play, you can’t set an example. It’s like these basketball coaches (especially in college) that talk about how their teams win because of their grit and determination. But if you don’t have talent, it doesn’t matter how determined you are.

    • SDG says:

      Aren’t there a lot of replacement-level backup catchers who go onto become managers? Isn’t that an example of leadership coming from players who can’t play?

      I’m not sure team captain is the same thing because I’ve never been clear on what those guys actually do. It seems like an honorary thing most of the time.

  7. Rick Rodstrom says:

    Vernon Wells was apparently a prince of a guy, but once he lost the ability to turn on a fastball it was over for him and no amount of tinkering was going to get it back. Heyward can’t catch up to major league heat, so I think he’s done for. Part of the problem is that pitchers throw harder now than they did before, so you can’t feast on the junkballers like you used to, and pitchers get taken out of the game at the first sign of fatigue, so you can’t hope on catching up to the starter the third time around; instead, you’re facing guys throwing in the upper 90’s from the 7th inning on. So it’s never been a worse time to be a long-armed slugger with a slow bat. Maybe he can learn how to bunt for base hits.

    • Patrick says:

      Yeah, this is a good point. I’ve heard similar stories about Billy Hamilton—although for a slightly different reason—his arms and wrists simply aren’t strong enough to be a productive hitter when everyone throws as hard as they do.

  8. SDG says:

    All this is reminding me of Billy Martin. When he was with the Yankees, Weiss hated him and thought he was a bad influence on the rest of the team (the team that was winning everything all the time). In one of he books he says something to the effect of, I roomed with Rizzuto and he won the MVP, Yogi and he won the MVP, Mickey and he won the MVP and the triple crown. Maybe I was a good influence. The winningest team in history had a star player who didn’t rehab his knee and played hungover. The entire team was arrested for getting in a barfight. I’m not sure if this makes a point about character, just putting it out there.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      As a manager, Billy Martin once punched out one of his pitchers. He almost got into a fight with his right fielder on national TV. Now, there’s real leadership. But he still won.

  9. Crazy Diamond says:

    Jason Heyward: reminding us for 8 years that Saint Theo isn’t perfect. (Seriously, is there a worse contract in baseball right now?)

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