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2017 Player Profiles: Jason Heyward

It’s the fantasy offseason and time to pass the long, cold winter by profiling key players for the upcoming season. Jason Heyward is the first man up.

Division Series - San Francisco Giants v Chicago Cubs - Game Two Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Welcome! If you are reading this shortly after it is posted, you are probably a fantasy baseball nut like me, thinking ahead to ranking and evaluating players for the 2017 season, when the real baseball postseason is only half over. Even if you are reading this in March as draft preparation, that’s ok. In fact, it is even encouraged!

Get used to seeing these 2017 player profiles, because I’m going to fill the offseason with them. There will be about two profiles every week until springtime. I thought we would kick things off with a player from a team that won the World Series this year and ended a 108-year title drought, nevermind, I do not want to be accused of jinxing and enrage Cubs fans everywhere. But, if that does turn out to be true, you heard it here first! I can say today’s player is on an NLCS team, though.

“Get on with it!” Ok, no need to shout. Jason Heyward disappointed Cubs fans and fantasy owners in 2016 with career lows in slugging, OBP, ISO, home runs, wRC+, and hard hit percentage. What should we think of him going into 2017? What went wrong?

I think it’s important to try and understand first just how awful his power was this season. With the league hitting the second most home runs in MLB history, he hit 7 in 592 PA! In 2013, he hit 14 homers in just 440 PA. Guess how many players had a lower slugging percentage than him among all 146 qualified hitters? One. One. Adeiny Hechavarria. He had the seventh worst ISO and the 12th worst hard hit percentage. Statcast backs all of this up, with an average exit velocity of just 87.4 mph, good for about 400th best.

All of this is in spite of the fact that he cut down on his ground balls from 2015 (from 57% to 46%), increased his fly ball % by 10%, and pulled the ball a very high 40.7% of the time, up 1% from last year. Those changes should all boost power output. Unfortunately, if you do all that but don’t hit the ball with any authority, it just leads to a drop in BABIP and lots of pop-ups and fly ball outs.

Sure enough, his BABIP fell to 0.266, down from his average of 0.302. His batting average suffered along with it, falling to an awful 0.230. His infield fly ball % clocked in at 14.4%, up 2% from last year. The funny thing is his walk and strikeout rates were nearly identical to 2015. So, it is basically all about a drop in hard contact.

What could cause this? Well, an injury can certainly sap power. To the Google machine! He had an abdominal/rib injury from May 20-23, he also had wrist soreness in early May that forced him out of a few games. Finally, he missed one game in late June with left side soreness. None of that sounds too serious and he didn’t miss much time, but they could have impacted his power. Despite that, I believe more in a different theory.

We usually look at swing changes to validate players in the middle of a breakout. This was true for Jose Bautista, J.D. Martinez, and Jake Lamb, to name a few. Offseason tweaks to batting stances, timing, foot taps, hand placement, and more can result in huge improvements in offensive output. The opposite is also true, however. Sometimes changes go very wrong.

Back to Google land! Let’s see what comes up when you search for “Jason Heyward swing change”.

And that’s just the first eight links! He clearly likes to tinker with his mechanics and you can see that it dates back to his early career with the Braves. He made three swing changes by late 2014 already. You can also see that article from from February. That’s a very good read. It discusses how he did change his mechanics going into 2016 (again) and that it was done in order to increase his power. Oops. I guess that kind of backfired. The end of the article even has some foreshadowing:

There is a long way to go, and if Heyward struggles making contact early on they may scrap this altogether and go back to what he’s shown success doing in the past. While the players aren’t all that similar, I think a lesson has been learned with what the Cubs did with Starlin Castro a few years back and how attempting to change some of his strengths at the plate took a toll on his production.

It turns out that they shouldn’t have messed with Heyward’s swing, either. Back to the injury theory for a second, just below that Google screenshot cutoff is a link to this article, which suggests that his minor wrist injury wasn’t so minor. It is possible that it lingered for most of the year, robbing him of his power.

Finally, there is this graphic from Baseball Savant:

He only hit pitches on the outer half of the plate with any authority this year. If pitchers threw it out of the zone, middle-middle, or anything inside at all, he couldn’t hit it with any power. Some of those exit velocities are just awful. Oh, and pitch type doesn’t matter because his exit velocity was bad against all pitch types. It was best against hard pitches, but still only in the 89-mph range. Breaking and off-speed stuff led him to produce 83-85-mph exit velocities. Yuck. Pitchers could easily exploit his weakness and he couldn’t do anything about it.

Where does all this leave us for 2017? Well, anytime a player has a career best or worst year, you should expect some regression the next year closer to their career averages. If you believe his wrist hurt all season, you could make the case that it will be fully healthy going into 2017 and he will be able to do something like his 2014 line: 0.271/0.351/0.384, with 11 HR and 20 steals. I think people have always overrated his power after his 27-home run season in 2012. Three of his seven seasons have produced slugging percentages below 0.400. As a fantasy owner, I think 2014 is what you should plan on getting. It would still be a big improvement over 2016, but he would be just a last-outfielder-on-the-roster guy, not a star.

I would like to see him change his swing, yet again, because what he did last offseason clearly failed. If he can keep his fly ball gains but square up the ball more, he could get his slugging back above 0.400 and hit something like 15 HR, I believe. He will be an interesting gamble next year and will probably come cheap in drafts. I’m going to give him one more year to prove his power isn’t completely gone. Keep in mind that steals and runs scored still have lots of value with the Cubs lineup so dangerous and with steals so hard to come by, so that certainly helps his case. Heyward is one to keep two eyes on next season. Tschus!