You may have seen some of comparison’s between Jason Heyward and Mike Trout, both of whom have identical 156 wRC+ marks as of this writing. Heyward is also walking more and striking out less, not to mention playing better defense and running the bases more skillfully than the all-world Angels outfielder. But this isn’t about Heyward looking like Trout, it’s about him looking more like Jason Heyward.
So while it’s perfectly reasonable to be skeptical of the numbers, I don’t believe this is simply a matter of small-sample aberration. Could Heyward’s performance undergo a bit of statistical correction over the remainder of the season? Absolutely. That said, what’s most exciting to me isn’t even as much at the results as the process by which he’s achieved them.
To really delve into some of the thoughts I’m going to express here would require the kind of individual access the current COVID-19 protocols simply won’t allow. Even if I was allowed to join the post-game media Zoom calls, which I don’t anticipate happening anytime soon, the questions I’d like to ask are perhaps a bit too personal to be discussed freely in a semi-public setting.
For now, we’ll just stick with the notion that Heyward is simply more comfortable in his own skin. Maybe literally, as I’ll touch on here in a bit. As trite or romantic as that may strike you, it’s no secret that the mental side of the game is supremely important to individual performance.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Heyward’s swing, a constantly evolving mechanical jumble that appears to be much smoother and less tense this season. Always a duck-and-dive hitter who seemed to rely on his superior athleticism to compensate for weak links in the kinetic chain, he rarely maintained the same move from season to season. Sometimes it would change on a monthly or even weekly basis, though that maddening habit of wringing the bat handle and cross-locking his wrists remained.
That whole re-gripping thing appears to be gone this season, replaced by a more subtle finger flutter that allows Heyward to keep his hands active without twisting them and changing his grip. That alone may be responsible for some of the improvement because it’s keeping his arms from being at odds with one another, enabling a cleaner and more effective swing plane.
He also appears to have eliminated, or at least significantly reduced, the diving motion that often resulted in a hitch that saw him chopping at the ball. By keeping his hands in better alignment and using his hips to start the swing rather than dipping into it with his upper body first, Heyward is making much better contact and hitting more line drives than ever.
Though his groundball percentage is right in line with past results, his line drives are up to 26.1% against a career mark of 19.0% that includes just one season over 20% in a Cubs uniform. That and the reduction in fly balls proves his swing is much better and has a lot less chop in it. Wait, how is getting a little more upward tilt creating fewer flies?
It’s simple, really, and speaks to some common misconceptions about launch angle. You can still pop a ball up while swinging down if you chop under it, something Heyward did fairly often in previous seasons when he wasn’t rolling over a grounder to second. But by executing a swing that more closely mimics the plane of the pitch, you get more line drives and better contact. Sure enough, Heyward’s 49.3% hard contact rate so far is nearly 19 points higher than his career average.
That stuff isn’t really conjecture so much as observation backed quite soundly by supporting statistical evidence. The real guesswork comes in digging for some potential factors that may have better enabled the adoption of these new mechanics. I’m speaking of comfort and confidence, similar to the way Yu Darvish was able to elevate his game around the midway point of last season.
Scoff if you will at the notion that a 31-year-old in his 11th MLB season and fifth with his current team would only just now be finding himself, but I believe that may be the case with Heyward. While he’s been considered a leader in the clubhouse from the moment he arrived in Chicago, he was more of the strong, silent type than an outspoken presence. His rain delay speech during Game 7 of the World Series was so stirring in large part because it was somewhat out of character for him.
Now, however, we’re seeing Heyward taking part in public displays of activism, whether it’s sitting out last Wednesday’s game in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting or donating significant sums of time and money to local Chicago charities and advocacy efforts. Though I’m not willing to go so far as to say Heyward wasn’t comfortable being the center of attention before, it does appear as though he’s willing to stand up and be heard by more than just the members of his own team behind closed doors.
And remember earlier when I said he might literally be more comfortable in his own skin? As someone who has quite a few tattoos of his own, I can’t help but wonder whether Heyward’s growing collection of body art is an outward manifestation of an inner peace or understanding. He only started collecting ink in 2019 and was up to six pieces a year ago, but he’s got at least one full sleeve and doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon.
If Heyward is anything like me, those tattoos help to tell his story and allow him to express himself without saying a word. They may also be symbolic of him knowing and understanding himself, something that can take a long time to really figure out.
Finally, there’s the idea that he’s far enough removed from the hype of being the hometown kid unfairly touted as the second coming of Hank Aaron when he was with the Braves. The weight of those expectations may have been lightened somewhat by the trade to St. Louis, but signing a big deal with the Cubs only served to heap even more on Heyward’s shoulders. Whether that naturally eased away or Heyward threw it off by sheer force of will, he doesn’t seem to be burdened by it any longer.
Whatever the cause, the end result is a player who looks to be carrying himself just a little differently in the box. That leads to good results, which in turn improves confidence. Unlike some kind of temporary boost provided by a hot streak, Heyward’s hitting might be more a product of a more relaxed and self-assured demeanor. Only he can say that for certain and I’d love to pick his brain to find out whether and how he views all of this.
For the time being, the only thing we know for sure is that Heyward’s production is better than we’ve ever seen before and he’s been one of the Cubs’ biggest offensive weapons at a time the team desperately needs it. Maybe that’s all just a fluke of timing and luck, though I think it’s more likely a confluence personal growth and change that will yield more consistent, sustainable results.