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What Happened to Heyward?

Jason Heyward was a somewhat controversial player even before this year. Some baseball people loved him. Others just never saw what the big deal was. He was a darling of advanced statistics like WAR. His more traditional numbers left you yawning. When he got $180 million dollars from the Chicago Cubs before this season, many thought that it was a genius move. And many wondered if the entire world had gone mad.

Now, after one of the most dismal offensive season ever for a 26-year-old star, the question is: What the heck is going on here?

Start with this: Through 2015 — that is, through Heyward’s age 25 season — he had 31.1 Wins Above Replacement (as calculated by Baseball Reference). That is a lot. Bryce Harper, through five seasons, has just 21.1 WAR. Heyward’s WAR at such a young age placed him in the land of the baseball giants, in the neighborhood with Barry Bonds and Roberto Alomar, with Stan Musial and George Brett. Now, you can legitimately ask how a 25-year-old player with a .268 batting average, a player who averaged 16 homers per season and had never scored or driven in 100 runs, could find himself in such a pricey neighborhood.

The answer, at least according to WAR metrics, was that Heyward’s value built up not with flashy offensive numbers but because he did EVERYTHING well. It’s the ants theory from “Bull Durham.” “You get three ants together,” Annie Savoy said, “and they can’t do dick. You get 300 million of them, they can build a cathedral.”

Heyward was building cathedrals. A bit more than 40% of his WAR value came from his fantastic outfield defense. This was his true talent — defense. Then, his offensive value was boosted tremendously because he was also terrific base runner (he stole bases, was rarely caught, did not hit into many double plays, scored often from second on singles, etc). He walked enough to keep his on-base percentage comfortably above league average. And then he hit with just enough power and just enough consistency to finish the cathedral.

Heyward’s 2015 season in St. Louis was, in many ways, his most perfectly contentious season. He hit .293 with 13 homers, blah numbers, and yet he received MVP votes. Again, it was his defense and small-scale offensive skills that impressed his advocates. He finished fifth in the league in WAR but 20th in runs created and 50th in RBIs. He won a Gold Glove. He was the league’s most underrated or most overrated player depending on your point of view.

The Cubs took the more optimistic view and gave him a gigantic contract. “He fits our organization perfectly,” Cubs President Theo Epstein said, “because he’s the right age, he’s a complete player, his skills complement the rest of what we have so well. He perfectly addresses so many of our weaknesses.”

The Cubs’ two perceived weakness coming into 2016 were outfield defense and their strikeout habit. Heyward with his superior outfield skill and ability to put the ball in play did seem a perfect match.

Then, the roof caved in. It would be difficult to overstate just how bad Heyward was offensively in 2016. He hit .230 and finished 66th in total bases (only one player in the NL, Miami shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, had fewer total bases). Only eight outfielders this century have played every day and slugged .325, like Heyward did. And Heyward had this disastrous season at the time when baseballs flew out of ballparks at a near-record rate.

Even that doesn’t quite get to the heart of this shocking cave-in. Good players have down seasons, sometimes even frightful seasons. It happens. But it almost never in their age 26 season. Those sorts of years happen when they are young and still figuring things out or when they are in their 30s and declining faster than expected. But at 26, right in the heart of a player’s prime, well, what Heyward did is unheard of. Heyward’s age was one of the big reasons the Cubs gave the big contract. They anticipated that he would have three or four of his best seasons before he began to decline. It obviously did not work out that way.

It’s hard to find a comparable collapse. I asked people on Twitter to think of one, and the most mentioned player was B.J./Melvin Upton. There are similarities, but it doesn’t seem like a perfect fit. Yes, Upton had a strong first full season when he was 22. He hit .300/.386/.508 with 24 homers and some speed. The next year, he had a .383 on-base percentage and stole 44 bases. He fell off dramatically from there.

But Upton was a different sort of player — a mercurial swing-for-the-fences type who struck out a lot and, as a result, was wildly inconsistent. He was an aggressive but, by the numbers, not very effective base runner, and he was a subpar outfielder. Yes, he did collapse when he went to Atlanta as a 28-year-old (hitting .184) but there were signs that it was happening. With Heyward, there were no such signs. He had just put up four similar offensive seasons.

There are others — Carlos Baerga, Carl Crawford, Carlos Gomez, even Robinson Cano for a year — who have had their own mysterious falls, but their stories are different from Heyward’s. He seemed too together, too consistent, too athletic and skilled to fall apart like this. It should be said that while his offense caved in, his defense was still superior and he continued to run the bases well. As Chicago play-by-play announcer Len Kasper says, he still helped the team. But it was ALL defense and base running. He badly hurt the team with his bat, something that is particularly hurtful come the postseason and short series.

There are numerous theories about Jason Heyward’s offensive collapse. Some believe he is pressing to impress his new team and to prove that he’s worth the money. He’s admitted as much. Some blame his swing, which was always unconventional but now looks like an awkward dance move. He definitely has numerous technical adjustments to make.

Some think that he is just lost — completely devoid of confidence — and that theory does seem to have some merit when you look at how pitchers have been confronting him. They are basically just challenging him with fastballs. That’s it. More than 65% of the pitchers Heyward has faced this year are fastballs, one of the highest percentages in baseball and by far the highest percentage of his career. Pitchers are not even bothering to change speeds against him. They just throw fastballs in full confidence that he can’t catch up. They attack Jason Heyward much in the way they attack opposing pitchers.

Tuesday’s game provided a revealing and, for Heyward fans, painful example. He did not start against lefty Rich Hill; Joe Maddon realizes he just can’t afford Heyward’s bat as the Cubs struggle to score runs. He was sent in to pinch-hit against the Dodgers’ Joe Blanton, who is a slider-first pitcher these days. According to Pitchf/x numbers, Blanton only threw his fastball 21% of the time this year.

But with Heyward at the plate, Blanton threw a 90-mph fastball over the inside half of the plate. Heyward watched it go by for a strike. Blanton then threw another 90-mph fastball over the inside half of the plate. Heyward watched that one go by for a strike too.

Then, Blanton threw his slider, and Heyward swung and missed it by about 200 miles. It was as bad an at-bat as you will ever see from a good player, a crushing illustration of just how far Heyward has fallen.

And it left little hope that Heyward can still save this season with some postseason heroics. He is two-for-19 in the playoffs and, with the Dodgers having a lefty-dominated rotation it’s unlikely that manager Joe Maddon will give him too many at-bats.

Whatever ails Jason Heyward will need to be fixed in the off-season. Can he fix it? There’s no telling. But his best bet will be to try far away from the spotlight, away from all the people who shake their heads because they can’t understand how it went wrong and all the others who shake their heads because they never got the fuss about him in the first place.

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42 Responses to What Happened to Heyward?

  1. Ross says:

    This year for Heyward was particularly sad because (and I don’t think I’m the only one) I really expected him to not only be the same player he’d been in recent years, but at age 26 to even have a breakout season. This is a guy with tremendous physical ability who had a .393 OBP and 131 OPS+ at age 20, who hit 27 HR and slugged .479 at age 22, and at 6’5″, 240 would seem to have a lot more where that came from.

    Sometimes I think he just hasn’t been the same hitter since his jaw was broken by a pitch in 2013 – had a rough sophomore season, but at ages 22-23 hit .263/.341/.458, 116 OPS+, average of 26 HR per 162 games. Since returning from the injury he’s hit .265/.339/.383(!) with a 99 OPS+ and an average of 12 HR per 162. I think there may be something to that, but even that doesn’t seem quite right…

    Even before this year, which has taken the struggles much further, he hasn’t seemed as comfortable as you’d think at the plater. He should be a guy who’s up there to do damage. That .383 SLG the past 3 seasons is dangerously close to Ben Revere territory. Even if he had a bad year with the .230 BA, as he did this year, you’d think a guy with his ability could still hit 20+ home runs.

    I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but I really hope to see him turn it around in the upcoming years. Still plenty of prime left, and a really talented guy who could still be one of the best int he league.

  2. murr2825 says:

    Hey, Joe, I’d like to see your take on what happened to Bryce Harper after a killer April

  3. Izzy Gone says:

    Jason Heyward makes WAR look silly. Everyone who points to advanced metrics has to cringe when Heyward’s name comes up. Maybe he’s the exception, maybe he’s the canary in the coalmine. Either way the folks who favor traditional stats are having a laugh when guys like Heyward are compared to Bryce Harper.

  4. Otistaylor89 says:

    “Jason Heyward makes WAR look silly.”
    That’s because WAR is silly. In 2012 Heyward struck out 152 times or 23% of his PAs, batted .269 and drove in 82 runs, but his WAR was 9th in the league! I don’t care what is going on with the rest of his game, but if a stat is telling me he was the 9th best player in the NL then I’m going to find another stat to value a player.

    • NevadaMark says:

      I have to admit, that is not a bad point.

    • Scott says:

      I would encourage you not to dismiss WAR so blindly. I’m not saying that WAR is perfect but I also think it is a bit extreme to dismiss something because you happen to disagree on one point, especially without understanding why you disagree. It isn’t like you disagree with WAR most of time. In 2016, the WAR leaders were Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, Jose Altuve, and Josh Donaldson. I think most people, even those who dislike WAR, would agree that that is a pretty reasonable list. Personally, whenever WAR rates a player far differently than I do I see this as an opportunity to learn more about that player and usually once I see where WAR is coming from I change my mind…

      Let’s talk really quickly about the statistics you listed. I searched for players with similar 2012 stats and found a player named Garrett Jones. He was a first baseman for the Pirates who, in 2012, struck out 20% of the time, batted .274, and drove in 86 runs. Those stats are very similar if a tiny bit better than your Heyward stats but WAR puts Jones at only 1.6 wins above replacement. So your instinct that that level of hitting makes only a mediocre player isn’t wrong, it is just that there are a lot of things that matter other than hitting….

      Jones was considered an average to below average fielder while Heyward is considered one of the best. WAR thinks that was worth 2.5-3 wins for Heyward. Defensive stats might be imperfect but I don’t think it is unreasonably to believe that Heyward could save a couple games with defense.

      Jones had two stolen bases while Heyward had 21. That is 19 extra times Heyward got himself into scoring position. Heyward was also better at taking extra bases meaning he scored more often from second on a single or from first on a triple. Heyward actually scored 25 more runs than Jones that season and while some of that may have been the people batting behind him, a lot of that was Heyward’s base running ability. Is it so surprising that score 25 extra runs might be worth a win or more?

      Another factor is that Heyward plays right field while Jones played a lot of first base. Since it is easier to find someone who can play first base (first base is the easiest defensive position) than right field the average right fielder is a worse hitter than the average first baseman. This means even if Heyward and Jones had the exact same stats, Heyward would be more valuable because of his position.

      • invitro says:

        I agree except for one thing. “it is just that there are a lot of things that matter other than hitting….” — in this case, it’s more than there are a lot of things that matter to hitting other than batting average, RBI (which don’t matter much at all), and K (which matter almost none).

        Part of the general impression of Heyward is that he had such a spectacular rookie season. 6.4 WAR as a 20 year old does indicate Hall of Fame ability, maybe even “inner circle” HoF ability. Also, I vaguely remember the Braves ordering him not to walk so much after his rookie season. If that’s the case, well, that really is sad (even sadder than people who eat at Olive Garden).

        • Dr. Baseball says:

          Olive Garden again?

          Those breadsticks are delicious!

          ***
          Because of the volume of food provided (endless pasta, endless salad, endless breadsticks), the deliciousness of the breadsticks, and the many locations throughout the USA (including Times Square), in spite of food that some consider inferior, Olive Garden’s WAR is 4.5

      • jroth95 says:

        Well done, Scott. As a Pirate fan, I was tickled to see good old Garrett F. Jones (if you’d seen his homerun clouts, you’d understand the middle initial). Just to add a bit more color to the comparison, not only did Jones play mostly 1B, he was actually not very good at it: he had a fear of the 3-6-3 DP, and often chucked the ball into LF or threw so badly that the turn at second was impossible. Perhaps ironically, he was rather better in RF than at 1B, although I think by 2012 his big frame had overtaken his legs, and he wasn’t as mobile as a year or two earlier.

        So yeah, the idea that Heyward, with a similar bat, was worth another 3 wins thanks to playing a harder position much, much better while being a significantly more valuable baserunner is hardly a stretch.

        One other thing: it is funny that baserunning is an area where traditionalists lose to see it done well, yet they still seem skeptical that WAR values it so highly.

  5. JB says:

    Heyward is the poster child for those who argue against the WAR stat. I fall somewhere in the middle in that I believe WAR is on the right track, but does not yet have the correct weight for various areas. RF defense and baserunning can’t be so valuable over the course of a season to elevate a poor hitter to an elite player ranking. Isn’t Alex Gordon a similar story?

    • invitro says:

      Maybe, but Heyward was never a poor hitter until this season. He was a solidly above-average hitter from 2012-2015 (Rbat’s: 15, 9, 7, 13), slightly below-average in 2011 (-4), and great in 2010 (32). Baserunning is actually almost nothing for Heyward: he’s 17 runs over average for his career. His high WAR appears about 60% due to offense, and 40% due to defense.

  6. Cuban X Senators says:

    Interesting too that with the Cubs up 3-2 in the bottom of the 8th, facing 2-on & none out, in game 3 vs the Giants, they had him, the they brought in because his defense is so valuable, trot off the field in a defensive switch.

  7. invitro says:

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned the obvious answer. He got his hundreds of millions of dollars. He has no reason to work hard any more. Well, I don’t know if that’s the answer, but I believe it’s happened to new hundred-millionaires before, and should at least be considered.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Except you have no evidence to support that other than speculation. I’ve never bought the notion that guys get money and all of a sudden don’t give a damn if they suck. Maybe that happens to some players but I think more often what happens is they feel the pressure to live up to the money and they try to hard. Part of the problem, perhaps, is that players get paid more than their talent really warrants and they simply can’t live up to the money. I don’t know but I don’t see why that’s any less likely than your argument. If you were doing a job you like, wouldn’t it be more fun to be good at it than to be bad even if you made a lot of money?

      • invitro says:

        I’m not at all arguing that this is the case, only that it should be considered. As you said, I have no evidence, well actually I do, his contract is evidence :). And here’s something from wikipedia: “While his father emphasized that working hard and approaching the game with discipline were important, it was to be – above all – fun.” Reading between the lines: hard work isn’t all that important.

        “If you were doing a job you like, wouldn’t it be more fun to be good at it than to be bad even if you made a lot of money?” — First, how do you know Heyward likes his job? Second, I’m not sure, not having to work at my job might be better than being really good at it.

        Again, I am not arguing that any of this is the case. Only that I don’t see any evidence to rule it out as the case. 🙂

  8. Marc Schneider says:

    As a Braves fan, I watched Heyward for several years. I saw him in Spring Training the year before he came up and thought he would be a star. But he simply was never a particularly good hitter and, for someone his size and strength, had relatively little power. Increasingly, he became a ground ball machine, turning over pitches and hitting weak grounders to the right side. He still did enough-walking, base running, defense, etc.-to make his a valuable player but I never thought that a right fielder that isn’t really a good hitter could be close to the best player in the league. I’m not sure how much is related to the beaning; I think his issues started before that. I feel sorry for him now but I think he was simply always overrated; defense and baserunning are certainly important, but, IMO, to be a star at a corner outfield position, you need to be a big hitter.

    • invitro says:

      “he simply was never a particularly good hitter”, “isn’t really a good hitter” — I think you’re just plain wrong here. Heyward was a very good hitter his rookie year, and above average from 2012-2015. I assume you disagree; why?

      • Marc Schneider says:

        I exaggerated for sure. He was good his rookie year and was pretty good for several years. Part of the problem, I guess, was the expectation fans had that he would be more than just an above average hitter. His power declined over the years and he seemed to have increasing trouble getting the ball in the air and began turning over on a lot of pitches, resulting in weak ground balls to the right side. He started having more trouble with lefthanders-as most lefthanded hitters do. But in response to your suggestion that he stopped working after getting the contract, my argument would be that some of the problems we have seen this year were present, albeit to a much lesser degree, throughout his career. He went through some rather prolonged slumps with the Braves, although he generally was able to recover to post decent numbers. Admittedly, I don’t have numbers to back this up so this is largely more of an impression.

      • DavidGardner says:

        Invitro, I had really expected Heyward to have a fine season playing half his games in Wrigley. He had been a pretty good hitter in Atlanta, and when the Braves built Turner Field they were almost determined that it was not going to be as a good a hitter’s park as Atlanta/Fulton County Stadium had been. (It was called the “Launching Pad” for a reason.) So the fences were farther out, and the open breezeways (that were big factors in the ball carrying the way it did at the old stadium) were enclosed, and frankly Turner Field was one of the better pitcher’s parks in the league. And I was sure that Heyward would have a very good season or two playing his home games at Wrigley.

      • DavidGardner says:

        Invitro, I had really expected Heyward to have a fine season playing half his games in Wrigley. He had been a pretty good hitter in Atlanta, and when the Braves built Turner Field they were almost determined that it was not going to be as a good a hitter’s park as Atlanta/Fulton County Stadium had been. (It was called the “Launching Pad” for a reason.) So the fences were farther out, and the open breezeways (that were big factors in the ball carrying the way it did at the old stadium) were enclosed, and frankly Turner Field was one of the better pitcher’s parks in the league. And I was sure that Heyward would have a very good season or two playing his home games at Wrigley. Go figure…

  9. WorriedCubsFan says:

    Interestingly, there’s a great comparison for Heyward, one that Joe alludes to: Roberto Alomar. Check out the fWAR comparison of their career paths so far, with Alomar also having what was to that point the worst year of his career at age 26:
    http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?players=860,4940

    • invitro says:

      Awesome job finding that. It wouldn’t be as close with b-r’s WAR though, Alomar cratered at 2.2 WAR there, while Heyward’s at 1.5. I’m very curious if a HoF hitter ever had a 1.5 WAR, 592 PA season at age 25-27 (which I know is one of Joe’s main points).

      • Anon says:

        You can find some examples of HOFers who put up low WAR totals from ages 25-27 but once you throw out guys who played shortened seasons, they either played back pre-WWII or were big sluggers with bad gloves who just had an off-year at the plate (McCovey and Rice) or defensive whizzes who just had an off-year with the glove (Ozzie).

        Heyward actually had negative oWAR per b-ref. It’s tough to do that from ages 25-27 and make the HOF. LIterally the only players to ever do that were:
        – Paul Molitor and Orlando Cepeda who both had fewer than 50 PA so we’ll assume those were seasons lost to injury
        – Lloyd Waner who did it at age 27 in 1933. I suppose if you squint hard enough you can see some comparisons to Heyward – up young, good bat, decent glove. Not as much power as Heyward but Waner played at Forbes Field which was absolute death on HR since it was 440+ to CF and 360-375 to left and center. However he’s not a great comp and one of the weakest HOFers ever.

  10. Rick Rodstrom says:

    I’ve never understood why WAR thinks Heyward is this otherworldly fielder. To me, there are two things that I value most in an outfielder. The first thing is, can he play shallow? Can he cut off the cheap hits while still tracking down the big flies—can he go back on a ball? Heyward plays a relatively deep right field. The other is for an outfielder to charge the ball like a madman and come up firing a bullet to nail the baserunner in the manner of Clemente and Ichiro. I never put Heyward in that class.

    Tonight, in a shockingly lackadaisical effort in a must-win playoff game, Heyward made a lame attempt to throw out Not-So-Speedy Adrian Gonzalez at home plate (where he was fortunate to get a generous out call by Angel Hernandez). And at bat, tapping a roller to second to push in a run counted as an epic achievement for Heyward.

    It’s not that WAR overrates some players and underrates others based on an arbitrary set of criteria. Of course, I do the same thing. Only I do that by way of argument, stating as best I can what I believe to be true, while acknowledging that there are contrary opinions. That’s the goal anyway.

    WAR frames its own idiosyncratic opinion as a number, as an objective truth, the way home runs are an objective truth. The judgement is final and absolute. Player A is better than player B because his WAR is greater. 41 is higher than 34, can’t you see? As one man’s opinion it holds a limited interest, but as the stat of stats, the stat that makes all other stats obsolete, it leaves me cold. But it leaves players like Heyward rich.

    • nightfly says:

      Wait – Angel Hernandez was involved in a questionable call? The devil you say!

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Did the Cubs actually give Heyward the contract just because of his WAR number? I assume they did more than that, that people saw him play enough to think he was a great outfielder. I also assume that they expected his offense would actually improve. I just don’t believe that WAR is the only thing that teams look at in evaluating players.

      • invitro says:

        He’s won three Gold Gloves so far, so it’s not just WAR (more accurately, Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved stat) that thinks he’s a great outfielder.

        If there’s a general disagreement, I like to try to boil it down to something more specific. In Heyward’s case, the disagreement is that WAR says he was a top ten NL player three seasons, and (apparently) people think that is crazy. If Heyward had been just “moderately good” on defense those years, let’s say whatever the equivalent of 1.0 dWAR is, he’d be in the top ten only his rookie year, and we wouldn’t be having (much of) this discussion.

        So I think (I’m not certain) the disagreement can be boiled down to two numbers: Heyward’s dWAR of 2.8 in 2014 and 2.0 in 2015. And people that have a problem with Heyward being a top ten player in 2014-5 really don’t have a problem with WAR at all, they have a problem with Defensive Runs Saved.

        I’d imagine that the Cubs at least checked the defensive part of the WAR numbers before offering the big contract. Hopefully they don’t pay Theo Epstein fifty million dollars just because he can look up a WAR number on b-r :).

  11. Chill says:

    The player he reminded me of coming up was Darryl Strawberry. I’m surprised Joe doesn’t mention that. Big lanky right fielder who doesn’t hit for high averages but runs, has power, has a big arm, takes walks, in the NL East…I added Straw to WorriedCubFan’s graph, and aside from starting a year older, Straw and Heyward track pretty closely. Strawberry crashed to earth at 30.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?players=860,4940,1012606

    • Chill says:

      Oh, and March birthday for Strawberry, August for Heyward, so the one year difference in “baseball age” is sort of an illusion – basically the same age when they came up. I know there are other issues in Strawberry’s career and that despite his speed and arm, Darryl was thought of as a mediocre outfielder. Just asking if anyone else saw the parallels when Heyward came up.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I guess that makes sense except for the “has power” part. Heyward has never hit more than 27 home runs and that’s the only time he even hit 20. He really has never been a home run hitter. But, also, Strawberry at his peak was a substantially better hitter than Heyward, at least in terms of OPS+. I assume he wasn’t as good an outfielder. I don’t really see that much of a comparison.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I guess that makes sense except for the “has power” part. Heyward has never hit more than 27 home runs and that’s the only time he even hit 20. He really has never been a home run hitter. But, also, Strawberry at his peak was a substantially more productive hitter than Heyward, at least in terms of OPS+. I assume he wasn’t as good an outfielder. I don’t really see that much of a comparison.

  12. Joe says:

    I firmly believe the helmet he wears has created a blind spot…an adjustment or doing away with it hopefully would resolve his problem.

    • Otistaylor89 says:

      People forget how much getting hit by a pitch and being seriously injured affects future play as I didn’t think Heyward has ever been the same since he was hit.

      • invitro says:

        Very good point.

        • Marc Schneider says:

          I don’t disagree in general, but his numbers since the beaning (until this year) weren’t that much different than before. Now, I will say that perhaps the beaning affected his power in some way; maybe he would have become more of a power hitter. But his OPS+ is 131, 93, 117, 114 (the year he was beaned), 109, 117, 70. Maybe the beaning kept him from becoming a truly dominant hitter, but his performance hasn’t really changed-until this year.

  13. Gene says:

    “He hit .230 and finished 66th in total bases (only one player in the NL, Miami shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, had fewer total bases).”

    Huh? Are there some missing words in that sentence or do I just need more coffee?

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