The Welcome Resurgence of Cubs’ Jason Heyward

The Cubs have been a team of maddening inconsistency in 2020, particularly on the offensive front. In the midst of that inconsistency there are notable resurgences (or arrivals) that have helped mitigate the mysterious regression of others, but the overall tenor persists as sheer frustration. Kris Bryant‘s woes remain unsolved, and the complete collapse of Javier Baez remains a huge concern, yet the sudden arrival of MVP-candidate Ian Happ has been a blessing, as has the resurgence of Jason Heyward. And while Happ deserves an impossible amount of love, the bat of Heyward has been perhaps the biggest — and most important — surprise for the 2020 Cubs.

There are several specific holes to poke at with this Cubs’ offense, but a snapshot of the team’s overall production is telling enough. The team as a whole is 20th in baseball with a wRC+ of 95, largely accredited to a rather mundane .226/.322/.406 triple slash. Only the Tigers (27.3 percent) have struck out more than the Cubs (26.0 percent), although the team is walking at a rate (10.6 percent) that’s good for ninth best in baseball. Curiously, they do maintain the fifth best exit velocity in the sport (89.1 mph), but that is belied by the third highest ground ball rate in the majors (45.9 percent) that has led to a rather paltry .276 BABIP, ranking 20th with 4.48 runs per game. Long story short, the cons heavily outweigh the pros for this offense, and if the Cubs are to make a genuine playoff push, something will have to change.

Heyward’s Positive Regression Couldn’t Be More Timely

In a 162 game season you could consider slow starts by established superstars concerning, without making conclusions about their season on the whole. But with just 16 games left to play, KB, Baez, and Anthony Rizzo‘s struggles aren’t mere blips: they pretty much encapsulate the entirety of the 2020 campaign, despite what happens the rest of September.

On the flip side, Heyward’s robust .301/.413/.534 triple slash, good for a wRC+ of 151, isn’t merely a good start, but registers as proof that Heyward has, all these years later, rediscovered his offensive talent.

By way of Baseball Savant, Heyward’s renaissance isn’t cut and dry. While he’s near the top of the league in both xwOBA (.416) and xBA (.330), he’s doing so without making incredibly hard contact. His exit velocity (88 mph) ranks in just the 33rd percentile, with a hard hit percentage roughly league average, and barreling up the ball in the lower third of the league.

There’s also little discrepancy in the pitches Heyward has seen in 2020 as compared to his career:

What’s Caused the Renaissance of Heyward?

Sticking with Baseball Savant, Heyward is seeing pitches in the strike zone in 2020 (48.4 percent) in line with his career (47.4 percent). Curiously, however, he’s swinging at pitches in the zone (56.9 percent) at a significant decrease from his career average (63.0 percent) while also making less contact on pitches in the strike zone (82.8) than his career (88.1).

The curiosities don’t end there. Heyward is pulling the ball more (48.8 percent) than his career norms (41.1 percent), and has drastically reduced his ground ball percentage in 2020 (42.9 percent) compared to his lifetime rate (49.7 percent). He’s also chasing pitches at a rate nearly eight ticks lower than his career, and has halved his first pitch swing percentage in 2020. Such selectivity has created a huge uptick in line drives, hitting them 39.3 percent of the time this season, considerably higher than both his career (25.2 percent) and MLB (25.7) rates.

If the above chart reflects that Heyward continues to see pitchers attack him with a consistent repertoire, and if the statcast outcomes are both perplexing and encouraging, what we’re left with is how Heyward has fared with specific pitches.

Taking into account his career numbers, Heyward has this career line (through 2019) against specific pitches:

That line has undergone drastic changes in 2020:

Finally, here are those same outcomes, focused specifically on Heyward’s results against righties:

Heyward is crushing the four seamer in 2020 against righties, hitting a robust .353 with a .529 slugging percentage on the pitch. While he’s only hit one home run this year on the four seam fastball, he’s also walked nine times against just six strikeouts with the pitch ending the at-bat.

He’s also crushed the changeup versus righties, slugging .846 with a .308 batting average, and similarly, has upped his effectiveness against righty curveballs in 2020 (.375 BA, .750 SLG). Those numbers are drastic increases from career norms, where he’s hit just .234 (.374 slugging) against the change and .202 (.328 slugging) on curves against righties.

The 2020 Cubs Depend on Heyward

There’s no telling what happens with the conclusion of the season. With 16 games left, and a precarious two and a half game lead over the Cardinals in the NL Central, the Cubs have their destiny completely at their own hands. While there remains hope that the likes of KB, Baez, and Rizzo return to form, the better bet is to hope that Heyward continues his newfound offensive competence.

Whatever resurgence the superstars of this roster provide will be a boon, but as of now it’s clear that Heyward has become an integral part of this offense.

May that carry forward for the remainder of this season, and the remainder of his contract in Chicago.

Featured Photo Credit: ESPN

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