Much has been written about Jason Heyward’s recent offensive “rebirth.” Some say he has finally “figured things out.” Others feel all of his hard work has finally let him reclaim critical lost bat speed.
As both Evan Altman and Brendan Miller have expertly written, Heyward’s contact and hard-hit ball rates have both increased this year (click on their names for related pieces.) These improvements have certainly helped and reflect strong workout and plate-approach changes.
This said, several less apparent factors have equally influenced his statistical rebound over the past three weeks. These include advantageous pitching matchups, helpful lineup changes and, yes, a tidal hot streak that is lifting all statistical boats.
Heyward’s power splits
Before diving into these, let’s first explore the most unique and least commented upon aspect of Heyward’s offensive game. He’s the rare player who has more success against power pitchers than against any other style. And this part of his game has been largely hidden, not just this year or last year, but his entire career.
Usually only superstar hitters like Kris Bryant will hit power arms just as effectively, but they don’t typically fare better. On average, National League batters hit power pitchers 30 points lower (.232) than other pitching styles. However, since becoming a Cub, Heyward has been a unicorn who hits power arms 75 points higher (.301).
Heyward’s offensive struggles in 2016 and 2017 perplexed the Cubs’ brain trust in more ways than one. Joe Maddon tried the normal approach to help a veteran bat gain confidence: Limit his bats against the hardest-to-hit elite power arms and give him more at-bats against finesse and mixed repertoire pitchers.
Unfortunately, this only reduced Heyward’s opportunities against pitchers he hits best. Even in 2016 – the worst year of his career – he still hit .281 with a .778 OPS against power arms. So it was a perverse irony that Heyward’s opportunities against power arms dropped from 28 percent of all of his Cardinals at-bats in 2015 to 24 percent with the Cubs. This served to accidentally exacerbate his declining plate productivity.
This year started the same. By May 19, Heyward had a .375 batting average and a 1.012 OPS against power arms. But this was success got buried beneath a .200 average against all other pitchers, which depressed his overall average to .235. Thus, Maddon would sit Heyward even as the rest of the lineup struggled against power righties like Miami’s Caleb Smith, Atlanta’s Mike Foltynewicz, and Cincinnati’s Luis Castillo.
Finally interrupting this cruel cycle was a lucky stretch the past three weeks in which the Cubs faced a steady stream of power starters. The Pirates’ Nick Kingham, Chad Kuhl and Ivan Nova; the Mets’ Seth Lugo, Jacob deGrom and Zack Wheeler; the Phillies’ Nick Pivetta. Heyward’s grand slam off hard-throwing lefty Adam Morgan also beat the Phillies.
So from May 21 to now, Heyward simply kept his amazing .375 clip against power arms going, but with fewer finesse and mixed-repertoire pitchers to pull down his average, he now looked red-hot. It seems Maddon does not fully grasp the power-split advantage behind Heyward’s hot streak, but at least he stuck with his new hot hand in Heyward.
“Clumping” the lineup
Another change benefited Heyward, as well. As I noted in a piece last month, the Cubs have just a few players who hit power pitchers well. They are Heyward, Tommy La Stella, Bryant, Albert Almora Jr. and Ben Zobrist.
Through the team’s first 45 games, Maddon seldom started more than three of these bats against a power arm. Plus, he diluted their benefit by spreading them around the lineup, reducing chances the lineup might string together multiple hits and score some runs.
But during Heyward’s current hot streak, Maddon did start clumping them together at the top of the order. Usually this was Almora or Zobrist first, then Heyward, then Bryant. It has since become common for the top third of the order to go 5-for-9, while the rest of the non-pitchers in the lineup struggle at 3-for-15.
This further benefited Heyward by having Bryant hitting behind him, which would help any hitter. Plus Heyward now more regularly hits with runners on, the opposing pitcher in the stretch, and more pressure on the opponent.
In this way Heyward’s success has bred more success. His non-power-arm numbers have even improved the past three weeks. Though it represents a small sample size (30 at bats), he’s hitting over .300 in this stretch against finesse pitchers, along with a .908 OPS.
Can Heyward keep it going? I’m confident he’ll sustain his productivity against power arms, though perhaps not indefinitely at his current .375 clip for the season. But given his career-long success in this area, I doubt the league suddenly discovers a quick adjustment to stymie him.
That said, since his current hot streak is partly a result of a lucky sustained string of power starters, a return to a more regular mix of styles should probably result in some natural statistical regression. At the same time, his improved bat speed, lineup spot, and confidence could serve to blunt some of that.
Most disastrous, though, would be if Maddon returns to increasing Heyward’s rest against the power arms he excels against. If Maddon is smart, he won’t just double down against them with Heyward. Instead, he should clump even more of the team’s best bats around Heyward when the team faces a flame-throwing starter.