Jason Heyward Doesn’t Need to Hit When He Makes Plays Like This

The right fielder hasn’t been living up to his contract, at least not if you’re going by the traditional measures of performance. He appears to be pressing at the plate, either swinging out of his shoes or staring at mistakes he should be able to crush. And when he does make solid contact, it seems to result in scorched at ’em balls that are snuffed out in gloves like so many unsatisfactory offerings to the BABIP gods.

You and I know that a player’s worth isn’t limited to what he can do at the dish, but the struggles are frustrating nonetheless. And that’s just as fans. You know it’s got to be tough for a guy whose offseason courtship drew so much publicity to be scuffling early. Maybe not, though, as Heyward has traditionally been a very slow starter whose career March/April slash line is a mere .211/.313/.391. If we eliminate his first three years, those numbers get even worse too. I mean, like, way worse.

But the Cubs didn’t go out and sign Heyward to be a masher, they got him because he’s an incredibly well-rounded baseball player. So while the base knock market may be trending down a bit, that gold glove has already proven to be a solid investment. We saw a pair of slick sliding catches on shallow flies Monday night, but Tuesday’s Web Gem was an entirely different story (not unlike the shop owner and his son who had the misfortune of standing between Del Preston and the 5,000 brown M&M’s he needed to fulfill Ozzy Osbourne’s concert rider).

With the Cubs up 2-1 in the 4th, the Cardinals had men on 2nd and 3rd with only one out. Jason Hammel had been tagged early in the inning and at least one Cubs fan was having flashbacks to last season’s quick hooks. The only good news was that Matt Holliday, more known for taking fly balls to the junk than for his foot speed, was the man standing 90 feet from home when Yadier Molina came to the plate.

The diminution of Molina’s skills has been marked over the past couple seasons, aided and abetted by age and injury. Still, the situation dictated that an easy base knock could score two — admittedly iffy with Matt Adams at 2nd — and a fly with enough distance could get a runner home on a tag-up. The battered backstop hacked at the first pitch he saw from Hammel, a slider, and sliced it out the waiting Heyward.

Rather than simply camping out under the ball, however, Heyward hung back and walked into the play to allow his forward momentum to carry him right into a crow-hop. Had there been a garbage can behind the plate, the ball would have bounced once and gone in with the deeply satisfying thunk of horsehide on steel. Instead of a trash can, the Cubs had Miggy Montero guarding home and the result was an even more deeply satisfying swipe tag of Holliday for the inning’s third out.

The more jaded onlookers might shrug this off as a simple display of fundamental soundness, but those people probably haven’t seen the guys the Cubs have put in the corner over the past [insert number here] seasons. Defensive metrics can be a little squirrelly and I can understand why some folks remain skeptical of their validity. UZR and route efficiency aside, however, even the most stoic supporters of the eyeball test can see that a run saved equals a run driven in. Jason Heyward saves runs, which is kinda sorta important when the score held at 2-1 through the final out of the game.

And here’s the thing: this wasn’t some fluke or a misplay that forced him to pull a miraculous throw out of his backside. The whole play was just so damn smooth, man. Had it occurred two and a half decades ago, Tom Emanski would have used it as the highlight of his defensive training tapes. I’m going to turn the video into a GIF and have my Little Leaguers watch it over and over at our next practice. Perfection.

It’s only a matter of time before Heyward’s hits start falling and he becomes a bigger contributor offensively, but there’s no arguing that he’s been a big part of the Cubs’ 11-3 start with his glove alone.

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