Jason Heyward is having a terrible year, I’m sure you noticed. What makes things harder on those that want to believe in positive regression from the star outfielder is that in some superficial ways, it looks like his other bad year, that one in 2011. Finding the differences between the two has implications both on Heyward’s rest-of-season prognosis, as well as the effort to pin-point his long-term upside.
First, let’s throw up the fantasy numbers, along with some peripherals, for this year, right next to 2011.
He’s striking out less, though, and that’s important (especially since it’s backed by a lower swinging strike rate). Fewer strikeouts should mean a better batting average — more balls in play — but that hasn’t happened yet.
His batted ball mix is very different these days, and that should have an effect. He used to have a batting-average-friendly ground-ball approach (1.63 GB/FB), and that has changed over the last two years to a more power-friendly one (1.14 GB/FB). On the other hand, he’s hitting more line drives now. Add it all up and it means his xBABIP is .306 this year, and was only .267 back in 2011. Even if there some bias in the line drive numbers, the 22% line drives he’s hitting this year are more than the 13% he hit back then and that’s probably a meaningful difference.
Already we’ve identified three ways that the current slumping Heyward is better than the last slumping Heyward — he’s striking out less, he’s hitting more line drives, and his batted ball mix is more conducive to power. But can we figure out what’s going wrong this year?
His batted ball stats don’t produce any hints. It’s down this year! A half foot. He’s still in the top 90 in the stat with a 290-foot average distance. Tooling around on BaseballHeatmaps does produce this heatmap, however, describing Heyward’s work in the zone, compared to last year:
Maybe Heyward has a hole low and inside this year. But you know what, going with the theme of this article, he once struggled after a big rookie season. Here’s his run value heatmap from 2011, with respect to 2010:
Well, now that is interesting. Heyward has twice had bad years, and in both bad years, he struggled with the pitch low and inside. Now you might have to decide if you are a pessimist or an optimist. The pessimist says, he’ll struggle with that pitch the rest of his career and he hasn’t made the proper adjustments to deal with it. The optimist says, he fixed the hole once before, and he can do it again.
No matter how you read this information, you have to admit that Jason Heyward has made progress with his game, some results notwithstanding. He’s striking out less, and hitting the ball in the air more. As for the reoccurring hole in his swing… Arthur’s mom told him “some days are just like that.”