Chicago Cubs: Are we expecting too great a change from Jason Heyward?

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

After two sub-par offensive seasons, Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward is working with a new hitting coach in Chili Davis. What should we expect?

While the signing of Yu Darvish garnered the most headlines this offseason for the Chicago Cubs, there were bigger moves made. The team brought in highly-regarded pitching coach, infield and third base coach Brian Butterfield and hitting coach Chili Davis.

The latter holds a widely different hitting philosophy from his predecessor John Mallee, who went on to take the same job with the Philadelphia Phillies this winter. Similar to manager Joe Maddon, Davis is a master of not only preaching a message, but getting players to buy in and execute on said message.

"“I was on the staff when he was a player, and even then I thought he’d be a great coach. I like his methods. I like what he says and how he says it beyond theory. I’m talking about practicality, reality, the kind of things I think he can do in-game besides just the work. He has a great message, and he’s very good at delivering the message.”"

In Boston, Davis’ offenses excelled in situational hitting – an area where the Cubs struggled under Mallee. Granted, Chicago finished second in the league in runs each of the last two seasons, so it’s not like there are colossal improvements to be made, but still. Davis offers a fresh set of eyes for a roster dripping with potential.

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One of the guys needing some change in his life? Veteran outfielder Jason Heyward. Although he improved over his dismal 2016 campaign, the outfielder again struggled with the bat last year. After turning in a 68 OPS+ in ’16, he dumped that to an 85 OPS+ last season. His OPS also jumped nearly 85 points. So he’s, overall, trending up.

Minor, not major changes likely

Is Davis going to come in and overhaul Heyward’s swing this year? Probably not. At least not in the eyes of Maddon.

"“See the thing when you’re almost 30 years old, dramatic changes are almost impossible. When a guy’s body been working a certain way, whether it’s throwing or hitting, whatever, there’s so many years, just to on a Major League level to break it down and revamp in a dramatic method is difficult. It’s really difficult.”"

Last spring, we saw a drastically different batting stance from Heyward. He dropped his hands lower, giving him a shorter, quicker path to the ball. It seemed to help, at times, but he still rolled over on a ton of pitches.

Given he provides Gold Glove-caliber defense in right field and enjoys an eight-year, $184 million contract, Heyward isn’t going anywhere. He’s run off four consecutive Gold Glove Awards heading into 2018 and is the frontrunner again this year. But with a new-look Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Albert Almora all looking for regular at-bats, the leash may not be as long this season.

What you really need from J-Hey

Here’s the thing.

Chicago doesn’t need Heyward to hit .300 or be a 30-100 guy. They need him delivering in situational hitting and being at least somewhat of a threat when he steps in. It’s hard to envision a situation where Maddon doesn’t employ platoons in the outfield, especially with the former players we just discussed needing at-bats.

Last year, Heyward hit 11 home runs – with 10 of them coming against right-handed pitching. Aside from a tough month of May, in which he hit just .222, he hovered between .250 and .260 for much of the season. Maddon hopes minor tweaks could get that last little bit out of Heyward’s bat – perhaps getting him closer to the .270 mark.

"Again, it would be something subtle. It’s just a matter of them clicking on the right thought and then Jason being able to take it and run with it."

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Chili Davis is a tremendous addition to the team. But asking him to completely overhaul a 30-year-old outfielder’s swing in a few months is asinine. That being said, his impact may be felt yet – as Heyward seeks to prove his worth and silence his doubters in year three of his deal.