Cubs make long overdue move, shift Jason Heyward to center
The Bill James Historical Abstract contains (among many other things) summaries of significant baseball trends and events by decade. Each summary includes a brief listing of awards (or sometimes “awards”) that James made up to laud or condemn various players for their on or off-field actions. Two of these awards are for “better ballplayer than human being” and “better human being than ballplayer.”
If James had handed out these awards for the 2010s, Jason Heyward surely would have been a contender for the latter. Positive leadership, a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic and a team-first approach are all on Heyward’s resume. But as Chicago Cubs fans well know, he just hasn’t hit enough. And for a right fielder, that’s a problem (and would be regardless of the contract).
Of the 60 qualifying right fielders from 2016-21, Heyward ranks 56th in wRC+ with an anemic 89. That mark would place him 41st among the qualifying center fielders. In other words, still not great, but better. Center field is a tougher defensive position than right; teams generally tolerate weaker offense at the position.
And Heyward is moving to center, thanks to the team’s recent signing of Seiya Suzuki. This could help solve a problem that has bedeviled the Cubs for some time: how to stop shedding runs in center. A whole post could be devoted to Albert Almora’s mysterious descent into baseball irrelevance (oh, hey, here’s one!), but for our purposes it’s enough to observe that the Cubs have struggled defensively in center since Almora left the picture.
David Ross deserves credit for handing center to Ian Happ at the beginning of the 2020 season, and Happ deserves credit for battling the position to a draw, but he probably isn’t an everyday center fielder. His career fielding runs above average per year and defensive runs saved per year are both -5. His outs above average? Minus five as well.
Chicago Cubs: For now, Jason Heyward is the best defensive center fielder
Heyward on the other hand, checks into center with +12 fielding runs above average per year and +6 defensive runs saved per year, along side a cumulative 4 outs above average. Granted, he hasn’t played there much, but when he has he’s taken away his fair share of hits. And Heyward could get better. He’s already working on re-acquainting himself with center and syncing himself with Suzuki defensively. As for Happ – he moves to left. If he can return to his 2019-20 form when he slashed .260/.350/.530, that’s a bat that plays anywhere.
While the Fangraphs projected standings must be taken with a can of road salt at this point, they currently show all the NL Central teams not named “Pirates” scoring runs in the same general neighborhood (4.56-4.62 runs per game). It’s run suppression that will cull the herd; Fangraphs projects the Cubs to allow 4.95 runs per game against the Sliding Bernies’ 4.22, a yawning gap.
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Heyward may be tested less often than most center fielders, given Chicago’s grounder-heavy staff. But if the Cubs are going to beat that Fangraphs runs allowed projection, they will need every edge. And with the extra playoff spot now up for grabs, the Cubs won’t have to beat the Brewers to play some postseason games. It’s a reach, but hey, it’s spring.