After being swept by the Mets in the 2015 NLCS, the Chicago Cubs were still hungry to win their first World Series title in 108 years. Kris Bryant was fresh off an incredible rookie of the year campaign, Anthony Rizzo had put up back-to-back 5 fWAR seasons, and Jake Arrieta was actually unhittable on his way to his 2015 Cy Young award. The Cubs had arrived as one of baseball’s most promising teams moving into the 2016 season. However, starting centerfielder Dexter Fowler was entering free agency and the idea of losing Fowler presented multiple holes to fill for the future of the Cubs outfield. They had starting outfielders Chris Coghlan and Jorge Soler coming back, but Soler was a liability in right field, posting -8 defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2015. Soler’s bat was certainly something the Cubs needed to fit into their lineup—in 2014 his bat was a force in the minor leagues, forcing his way from rookie-ball all the way to the majors. The 30-year old Coghlan, on the other hand, was quite good for the Cubs, with a 113 wRC+ and 3.1 fWAR while spending most of his time in left field. The Cubs had options for their outfield corners but lacked a plus defensive presence with the loss of Fowler. In terms of internal options, their top outfield prospect Eloy Jiménez was still in rookie ball and too far away to benefit the Cubs’ current window.
With roughly an average payroll in 2015, the Cubs had the financial resources to go on a spending spree to supplement the holes that their youth could not. The Cubs payroll would go from $120,337,385 (2015) to $171,611,832 (2016). This jump in payroll took them from roughly $5 million below the MLB average to $41 million above the average at the start of 2016. They signed veteran SP John Lackey away from their division rival St. Louis Cardinals, and former Tampa Bay Ray and Joe Maddon-favorite Ben Zobrist who was fresh off a World Series win with the Kansas City Royals.
However, the signing that made the most noise was outfielder Jason Heyward, who was coming off a career year after being traded from the Braves to the Cardinals. Heyward had 5.6 fWAR in 2015 and a 121 wRC+ which was his best season offensively since his age-22 campaign in 2012. CBS Sports listed Heyward as the best free agent available during the 2015-16 offseason, and his 8-year and $184-million contract certainly showed how much value the Cubs saw in the 26-year-old. Heyward’s bat was above average to this point in his career, but it was his defense that the Cubs were signing up for.
Big contracts typically result in extremely high expectations, and fans were quick to become critical of Heyward’s ability to produce in the batter’s box. Defense is harder to quantify than hitting, and it is hard to blame a casual baseball fan for not looking at advanced defensive metrics. If I asked my dad to name the statistic to best capture defensive ability, he would probably say errors or fielding percentage. Those are probably the answers you would get from at least 80% of Cubs fans as well. Due to the nature and inconsistency of standard defensive metrics, it might be difficult for a casual Cubs fan to see the difference defensively between Chris Coghlan and Jason Heyward.
On the flip side, the casual fan is much more aware of a player’s hitting statistics and whether that player is highly paid or cost controlled. Heyward’s first season with the Cubs in 2016 was his career-worst season offensively, with a 72 wRC+ and a .631 OPS in 592 plate appearances. The fanbase and the media were quick to criticize the signing of such a large and expensive contract on a player who was terrible at the plate. In the field, Heyward’s 15 DRS saved was the seventh-highest amongst MLB outfielders, and he came in second in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR/150) behind only Mookie Betts. While Heyward’s bat was a disappointment, his glove and arm represented a much-needed presence in such an unsure outfield situation for the eventual 2016 World Series Champions.
2017, ’18, and ’19 were slightly better seasons offensively for Heyward with 89, 99, and 101 wRC+, respectively, in each of those seasons. On the defensive side, Heyward was still himself posting 42 DRS (fifth-best in baseball) between the 2017 and 2019 seasons. Heyward was still viewed as a disappointment by Cubs fans as they “missed out” on larger free agents in those years due to the size of Heyward’s contract. Prior to the shortened 2020 season, Heyward had averaged 1.5 fWAR per season which considering the size of his contract was quite poor. He would draw comparisons to the Angels’ Albert Pujols contract situation, but the two were very different situations.
Entering his age-30 season, Heyward is officially out of what is typically considered a player’s prime years, and defensive ability is one of the first things to diminish when a player begins declining. This would represent quite a predicament for the Cubs and Heyward as really his only value comes from his glove and arm. He is not a free agent until the end of the 2023 season and thus far in the shortened 2020 season he has zero DRS and is one Out Above Average (OOA) according to Baseball Savant’s fielding data. This very easily could have been a disaster season for Heyward, but a critical change to his approach has turned him from a defense-only player into one of the best hitters in baseball in 2020.
This is obviously a small sample size season, so there will be an asterisk next to this season barring continued success in following seasons. Imagine how Heyward’s numbers would look if he were having a typical defensive season? There is a chance he would be in the MVP conversation if that was the case. When I saw how well Heyward had performed to this point, I asked myself how he has transformed from a league-average hitter into one of the best in baseball.
Above is a visualization of Jason Heyward’s line-drive rate (LD%), which seems to be the most significant change Heyward has seen in 2020. This spike in LD% stood out to me because there are only three batted-ball outcomes that can occur (line drive (LD), ground ball (GB), and fly ball (FB)). Due to this, there had to be a batted-ball category that has gone down immensely to coincide with Heyward’s shift in batted balls.
The Launch Angle Revolution put a great emphasis on lifting the ball in an effort to hit more home runs. Heyward is by no means a power hitter and was not someone who embraced the philosophy of hitting more fly balls. He has always been a ground-ball hitter, and that is certainly not a recipe for success at the plate. Taking that into consideration, it is not surprising to see Heyward dipping in GB% more than FB%. He’s simply turning some of the batted-ball events that would have been ground balls into line drives which should be much more productive when it comes to run-scoring. I wanted to observe this idea on a more advanced level and not make any assumptions. To back up my hypothesis, I decided to create a correlation matrix between expected weighted on-base percentage (xwOBA), GB%, FB%, and LD%.
My hypothesis was that FB% would have the highest correlation with xwOBA, this would imply that the more fly balls you hit, the higher your xwOBA should be. I also assumed that GB% would have a negative correlation with xwOBA which would result in the inverse of the previous example being true.
So far this season LD% has been the most impactful when it comes to increasing or decreasing a player’s xwOBA. While this was not my expectation, it does explain why Heyward has suddenly become such a successful hitter. You can also see that LD% and GB% have a strong negative correlation which would imply that the players who are hitting more line drives are doing so by hitting fewer ground balls.
Heyward’s change in batted-ball events has resulted in his breakout this season. If there was a swing or approach change that has caused this to happen intentionally, then I believe there is good reason to expect Heyward to continue hitting at an above-average level. Another thing to note is that Heyward is pulling the ball more this season than he ever has in his career (47.3% vs. 41% career). He is also pulling the ball 10.7% more often than the MLB average (36.6%), and he has seen a dramatic drop in his opposite-field percent which has gone from a career 23% (25% is MLB average) down to 16.1%.
I believe there is a good chance Heyward has decided to try and pull the ball and focus less on hitting the ball the other way. This change has worked wonders for Heyward, and I hope it is intentional because this new and improved version of Heyward is much more fun than the league average hitter he has been in previous years. I believe there is a real chance Heyward could transform from a glove-only player into a much more well-rounded player. His impact on the 2020 Cubs has been critical to their success as a team and moving forward he might make the Cubs fans who would wish they could take his contract back regret their words.
Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)