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.