Chicago Cubs: Jason Heyward’s slow, painful progression

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

It is no secret that Jason Heyward has struggled since he signed with the Chicago Cubs in the 2015-16 offseason. But is there cause for cautious optimism?

When Jason Heyward signed an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Chicago Cubs in December 2015, he was coming off of his best season in the bigs. That year, as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, he slashed .293/.359/.439 and posted career-highs with 23 stolen bases and a 5.6 fWAR.

Since he arrived on the North Side, however, Heyward has not been able to replicate the success that he had with the Redbirds. In three seasons with the Cubs, Heyward has averaged a wRC+ of just over 86 and has hit a cumulative 26 home runs while also becoming somewhat of a non-factor running the bases.

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Despite still being one of the best defensive right fielders in baseball, Heyward’s lack of production at the plate paired with his massive contract have drawn the ire of Cubs fans everywhere. And Theo Epstein would almost certainly move Heyward if he could find a willing partner to take on at least some of Heyward’s salary, in order to pursue Bryce Harper.

But with all that said, Heyward has actually made (very) subtle improvements in Chicago. His batting average has climbed from .230 in 2016 to .270 in 2018, while his strikeout percentage has dropped in each season with the Cubs.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Heyward saw marked increases in both exit velocity and hard-hit contact percentage, according to MLB Statcast.

These are very telling signs in an offseason where Heyward made a host of adjustments. As reported by Carrie Muskat in February, the 29-year-old worked tirelessly with Chili Davis to hone in on his timing and keeping his swing path more compact.

And contrary to common belief, Heyward was a fairly decent hitter in clutch situations. Although he hit just .258 with the team trailing, he posted a .346 clip with two outs and runners in scoring position, while also hitting .292 in “Late & Close” situations, according to Baseball-Reference.

Of course, this is not to say that he has had the kind of production typically associated with players making more than $20 million per year. But at the same time, it is undeniable that Heyward has made strides, albeit it very small ones.

Virtually no argument can be–nor should be–made to suggest that Heyward has been anywhere close to the contract given to him three years ago.

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At the same time, Heyward’s clear determination to get back to the caliber of player that he was with the Braves and Cardinals as well as his improvements each year are positive signs of progression. And that should not be taken lightly.