The Rundown: Exit Velo and Launch Angle Key Heyward’s Power Surge, Schwarber’s Eye at the Plate
Cubs Insider has gotten our hands on some exclusive information and we can’t sit on it any long. You ready? Here goes: Jason Heyward is actually good again. I know, right? Sources close to the situation have told CI that Heyward’s three home runs this season represent three more than he had hit as of May 15 last year and they’re equal to his total as of June 6, 2016.
Those same sources revealed to us that Heyward actually purchased a home in Mesa for the express purpose of working on his swing throughout the winter in preparation for the new season. This is the kind of stuff you can only find here, folks, which is why it’s no wonder no one really knows about it yet.
Okay, I’m obviously having fun with some familiar journalism tropes, as it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching that Heyward is seeing and/or hitting the ball much better this season. But I’m not kidding at all when I say that we’ve covered the right fielder’s struggles with and work on his swing pretty exhaustively over the last year or so. Whether it was a look at how his mechanics have evolved to ditching the toe-tap to getting the first video of his offseason work (above), you might even say our coverage borders on creepy obsession.
I will not be ignored, Jason!
This was like the opposite of the Milton Bradley debacle when it came to seeing a big free agent signing struggle at the plate. While Bradley was an unrepentant a-hole and domestic abuser (hindsight, but still), Heyward is a likable guy who was easy to root for when he wasn’t trying to cut down random blades of infield grass the grounds crew’s mowers had missed. But even the nicest people in the world become targets when they’ve got that many zeroes on their paycheck.
My contention from the start was that what began as a mechanical failure quickly sparked a mental conflagration that razed Heyward’s confidence as surely as it lowered his stats. You could see it manifested in his approach as the frustration radiated from that twisting, torquing grip on the bat. Then you had a kinetic chain that made it look as though Geppetto was pulling the strings in an effort to teach Pinocchio to play baseball.
But just when everyone was thinking the donkey ears and tail were there to stay, Heyward has started looking like a real boy. Much of that comes from the work on his swing, cleaning up his load and improving the angle of his bat plane, but the Cubs’ mental skills program has helped as well. It’s neither a secret nor an accident that Darnell McDonald was present for those BP sessions in Mesa, and I believe he was integral in Heyward’s improvement.
One of the clearest signs of that improvement is his 91.8 mph average exit velocity, up 4.6 mph from last season. Absent context, such a stat is little other than a Mercedes hood ornament slapped on a Ford Escort, a shiny trifle that means nothing. In the simplest terms, a harder-hit ball is more likely to fall for a hit, so Heyward’s appreciable increase is part and parcel with a BABIP that is sitting at .333 after a woeful .266 last season.
We’ve already seen the outfielder propel 38.6 percent (22 of 57 recorded) of his batted balls with an EV of 95 mph or greater, up from 30.69 percent (135 in 440) last season. Though there’s still a long way to go, Heyward currently leads the Cubs in average EV (Addison Russell – 90.8; Willson Contreras 89.7; Anthony Rizzo 89.6), a sign of how well he’s hitting the ball. But there’s another area of improvement that’s just as important.
The ideal launch angle for home runs is right around 25 degrees, with a delta that stretches from maybe 15 to 40 on either end. During last season’s forgettable campaign, Heyward’s average LA was a mere 9.13 degrees. Contrast that with Kris Bryant (19.83) or Anthony Rizzo (16.59) and you get a better sense for how much of a different those angles can make.
As an aside, Rizzo’s first two homers of the season were hit at 20.0 and 21.4 degrees, respectively.
While Heyward is never going to be launching moonshots like the ones we see from Bryant, he has done an excellent job of increasing his launch angle this season. His 11.61 percent average is still lower than traditional sluggers, but it represents a 27 percent increase over last year. Put that together with his higher exit velo and you’ve got more line drives, which means more balls falling safely for hits, not to mention getting over the fence.
“You wanna do that more often,” Heyward said about Monday’s home run that left his bat at a 19-degree angle traveling 105 mph. “Not necessarily the home runs, but just consistent line drives and the backspin of the baseball and put consistent, good swings on it.”
The best part about this is that it’s sustainable. We’re not talking about massive jumps or statistical aberrations. I mean, sure, the numbers could move up or down a little bit, but this is absolutely something Heyward can maintain for the duration of the season. My sources tell me that having this type of hitter in the bottom half of your lineup could mean really good things for a team that just won a world title slotting a .230 hitter in there.
All batted-ball data per Statcast Leaderboard
War Bear likes to sit and look
I was going to dive into this a little further, but I got caught up on the Heyward stuff and figured I’d need to dial it back. Besides, my sort-of colleague at The Athletic, Rian Watt, already covered it in great detail (subscription required and suggested; you can do so here for 15% off). And while imitation is the highest form of flattery, there’s no reason to completely retread that same ground.
In short, Watt wrote about how much more selective Schwarber has been and how the strikeout rate might fool you into thinking the leadoff slugger is making less contact. Not true. A great deal of his strikeouts have been of the looking variety, which indicates that his K’s are actually a part of the process. He’s learning more as he sees more pitches, though, so it’s entirely possible we’ll see the strikeouts drop.
Here are a few quick observations on Schwarber’s batting this season:
- Swinging strikes at only 19.4%, down from 25.0% in 2015
- Fouls at 33.8%, up from 26.5%
- Looking strikes at 25.7%, down from 26.5%
- Looking strikeout percentage at 32%, up from 20.8%
- Swings down, contact up
- 4.44 pitches/plate appearance 5th in NL
More news and notes
- Dwight Smith Jr. is making a strong push to join the Blue Jays
- Yes, he’s the son of that Dwight Smith
- The 1989 ROY runner-up debuted on May 1 of that season
- How cool would it be for his son to come up on the same day?
- We had some pretty great GIFs from last night’s game, but our buddy Randall Sanders deftly combined them:
"Hey. Hey, Joe. You wanna see something? Look out at second base."
(Original GIFs: @realcubsinsider) pic.twitter.com/Boqo88nJ5x
— Randall J. Sanders (@RandallJSanders) April 25, 2017