Jason Heyward was jokingly asked if the over/under on the times he has been asked about his rebuilt swing since the beginning of spring training was 1,000.
“No, not that many,” the Chicago Cubs center fielder said with a smile last Monday night after his team routed the Pittsburgh Pirates, 14-3, at PNC Park.
Maybe 500? “I don’t know,” Heyward said. “It’s a story, though, and I understand. I
came here last year and had a bad season after signing a big contract. You can’t pretend that it didn’t happen. I understand that people want to know if I can get back on track and perform better than I did last season.”
Heyward batted just .230/.306/.325 with 7 home runs and 11 stolen bases in 142 games in the first year of an eight-year, $184 million contract he signed as a free agent the previous winter.
Taken in a vacuum, those numbers constituted an awful season. However, he was still worth 1.5 WAR in Baseball-Reference’s version because of his Gold Glove defense in right field and outstanding baserunning.
Oh, and the Cubs won their first World Series title since 1908.
“He’s helped this team in so many ways,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “We all know he’s a better hitter than what he showed last season but he’s a great defensive player and he’s the best baserunner in the league. Most importantly, he’s a great teammate and just a great guy, who is a major part of this clubhouse.”
Now, Heyward is starting to hit following an offseason spent in Arizona working with Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske on making major mechanical adjustments.
Through 18 games, Heyward is batting .294/.342/.456 with 3 home runs. All the homers have come in the last four games, including a three-run shot Monday night off right-hander Chad Kuhl.
Heyward jumped on a first-pitch fastball clocked at 94 mph and lined it 402 feet over the right-center field wall. Heyward was particularly happy about hitting the ball on the line.
“I’m looking to make hard contact every time up,” Heyward said. “I’m thinking line drives, square the ball up and hit it on a line.
“It was a pretty good pitch. I think he felt like he threw it where he wanted it and I was ready to get one in the zone, be ready, on time, hit the pitches consistently that are strikes and go from there.”
Heyward’s line drive percentage of 21.1 is just slightly up from last season’s 20.5, his percentage of hard contact has dropped a tiny bit to 26.3 from 26.4.
However, Cubs manager Joe Maddon believes the power Heyward has shown in recent days is real and a sign that he is poised for a bounce-back season.
“That ball was really well struck, properly struck,” Maddon said of Monday night’s home run. “It’s a nice continuation of what he’s been doing from spring training to now. His confidence is soaring and you should continue to see that trending upward.”
Heyward has had ups and downs throughout his eight-year career, which started with so much hype in 2010 when he hit a three-run home run — off then-Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano — in the first inning on opening day in his first major-league plate appearance.
The fans selected Heyward to start in the All-Star Game that year but he slipped to a .227/.319/.389 line with 14 home runs in 2011. It led some analysts to question whether he was anything more than a one-year wonder.
Heyward bounced back from that dreadful sophomore season to establish himself as a fine player. That experience has given him confidence he will return to form in 2017.
“It’s no go fun going through it,” he said. “When you’ve been down that road before, you know what you need to do to solve the problem. I’ve put the time and work into fixing things and the results are starting to show.”
By John Perrotto