Cubs’ Jason Heyward might benefit from diminished pressure

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images /

Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward has been something of a proverbial punching bag since coming to Chicago in 2016.

The Chicago Cubs’ Jason Heyward, the Ridgewood, New Jersey native was signed for eight years and $184 million in December of 2015. Heyward had just come off a year in which he hit .293 and stole 23 bases as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, and it was expected he would be the final star the Cubs needed to put them over the top in the team’s quest for a World Series.

But while the Cubs did indeed win the World Series in 2016, Heyward had the worst season of his career. In fact, in four years with the Cubs, Heyward has a .711 OPS with an 86 OPS+. Sure, the defense has been superb, but nobody makes $184 million on the strength of their glovework alone.

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However, there are reasons to be excited about Heyward entering the 2020 campaign. Not to mention, he could benefit from lowered expectations in an unprecedented season.

For starters, just about anything can happen this year. A 60-game campaign does not leave a whole lot of room for error, but it is also likely to yield some wild stat lines from unexpected candidates.

Moreover, Cubs manager David Ross has some options to work within the outfield. Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ will be penciled in on most lineup cards, but Ross might platoon Heyward and Steven Souza Jr., particularly given Heyward’s struggles against left-handed pitching. Albert Almora is also in the mix somewhere.

Then, of course, there is the fact Heyward continues to make strides, albeit small ones.

The 30-year-old has made subtle adjustments and gotten better at the plate in each year with the Cubs. Heyward hit 21 homers last year, and his final slash (.251/.343/.429) might have looked a whole lot better had Joe Maddon ended the leadoff experiment earlier.

Even despite that stretch–he batted .147 in 33 games as the leadoff hitter–Heyward managed to post 101 wRC+, his best mark with the Cubs.

Additionally, Heyward’s barrel percentage last year (5.9) was by far his highest since the Statcast era began in 2015, per Baseball Savant. He is back to crushing fastballs and has shown a growing comfort in driving the ball the other way. The question will be whether he can begin to adjust to off-speed stuff.

In the outfield, Happ’s insertion in center means Heyward can shift back to right, where he shines with the glove. According to Baseball Savant, Heyward ranked second among right fielders in terms of outs above average (OAA) last season and should excel in that spot yet again.

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This season will hardly be devoid of expectations for the Cubs. The North Siders understand this very might well be the last time most of the core from 2016 remains intact, and there will be a push to make the playoffs after missing out last year.

That said, most fans seem to have written Heyward off at this stage. The absence of individual pressure should serve to benefit the veteran as he looks to make an impact in 2020.