Chicago Cubs: Is Jason Heyward turning the corner?

(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /

While the likes of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have gotten off to slow starts, Jason Heyward has been one of the best hitters in the Chicago Cubs lineup.

Heading into Wednesday, Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward is currently slashing .323/.421/.613 with three homers and eight runs batted in, and his 1.034 OPS ranks second behind Willson Contreras among all Cubs starters.

Sure, it is a very small sample size after just 38 plate appearances, but the advanced metrics are extremely encouraging for the oft-maligned and scrutinized Heyward.

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Thus far, Heyward has totaled 20 batted balls at an average exit velocity of 91.0 MPH, according to MLB Statcast. This is nearly a full MPH more than Heyward’s 2015 season in St. Louis, where he hit .293 and slugged .439 with 13 homers.

Additionally, Statcast indicates that his average launch angle is 17.0 degrees and his hard contact rate is at 45.0 percent, both of which are easily above prior career-highs. And what happens when you combine harder contact with an increased launch angle? More often than not, that combination will lead to more homers.

The Cubs have tried the launch angle approach before with Heyward, when John Mallee was hitting coach in 2017, and the results were not very good.

Yet, FanGraphs indicates that 21.4 percent of Heyward’s fly balls left the yard last year. Some fans may deem this rate unsustainable due to Heyward’s persistent ground ball rates, and that could be the case.

But before counting Heyward out, remember that reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich hit the ball on the ground over 50 percent of the time last season, while over 35 percent of his fly balls left the yard. Yelich finished the year with 36 homers.

Now, of course, Jason Heyward is not Chritian Yelich. One of the reasons Yelich had so much success last season was because his line drive rate was near 25 percent. Heyward’s current percentage is at just 7.1, and he has yet to eclipse a 21.4 percent line drive rate (2013) in his career.

And yet, look how much success Yelich continues to have, even as someone that hits the ball on the ground at a very high percentage. Given Heyward’s increases in both launch angle and exit velocity, is it possible that he could at least yield more productive results this season?

There are still plenty of frustrations with respect to Heyward’s approach. He has already grounded into five double plays this year, which leads the major leagues. And all too often, that 4-3 ground ball has seemed to define his tenure in Chicago.

But Heyward is already having more success driving heaters. He turned on a 95 mph fastball from Corbin Burnes and deposited it into the right field seats on Saturday night, then later in the same game took a fastball away and drilled it over the fence in left-center.

Again, it is still very early. However, the increase in exit velocity and launch angle (not to mention an increase in walk rate and subsequent decrease in strikeouts) as well as a better approach at the plate point to an improved Heyward.

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Time will tell whether he can sustain this success, but this could certainly be Jason Heyward’s most productive year as a member of the Cubs.