On the Psychological Nature of Jason Heyward’s Struggles
Much has been made about the shifting mechanics of Jason Heyward’s swing and the disappointing results it has yielded this season. I’ve covered the toe-tap, the hands tucked in so close to the body that you wonder how he can possibly elevate a pitch, and the frustration that he’s faced as even solid contact seems to find gloves. And I’m certainly not alone, as this has been a frequent topic of discussion among fans and scribes alike.
I’m also not alone in surmising that much of Heyward’s issues are mental, that he’s pressing to justify his contract or to live up to the stellar production of his teammates. I wasn’t basing that supposition on anything Heyward had actually said, since it’ll be a cold day in hell before an elite athlete admits in the moment that he’s being held down by expectations. But something I heard Sarah Spain mention on ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike the other day lent some credence to my thoughts and sent me searching for more data.
I often find myself clenching my jaw without even realizing I’m doing it. Maybe it’s as I’m picking out my clothes in the morning or just sitting and watching a ballgame in the evening. I don’t know why I’m doing it, just that it takes a conscious effort to relax lest the tension eventually lead to a headache. From what I can see, Heyward is clenching his jaw.
Spain said on the air that a friend had pointed out to her just how much better Heyward performs when the Cubs are leading, when the pressure is off. That’s quite true, as you’ll see in a bit here. One way to look at that would be to say that he’s not a clutch player. Yet another would be to say that playing with a lead enables him to relax, to realize that he needs to stop gritting his teeth. That may sound like two ways to say the same thing, but I believe them to be mutually exclusive mentalities. Then again, I can understand why some might find them to be one in the same.
Consider that when the Cubs are ahead, Heyward is slashing .287/.372/.427 with a .330 BABIP. When the Cubs are trailing, however, his numbers drop to .184/.263/.272 with a .212 BABIP. It’s also interesting to note that Heyward’s batting average gets better as the Cubs fall behind by more runs, from .193 in one-run games, to .208, .217, and .220 when the margin is two, three, four runs. He hits .283 when down by four or more.
As I see it, Heyward performs better when he can dispel the fallacious thought that he needs to be the one trying to win the game in that single at-bat. When the Cubs are ahead, or when they’re further behind, his performance is appreciably better. Consider that his first home run this season came on May 17 in the 9th inning of a game they were losing 4-0. His next came two weeks later when the Cubs were leading 4-1 in the 5th. Another bomb came four days later with the Cubs up 1-0. His most recent dinger, a 375-foot sigh of relief to left center, added to a 2-0 Cubs lead.
Only his previous homer, a 1st-inning jack job in Atlanta back on June 11 that marked the start of a 40-game drought, was the only one that came in a game in which the Cubs were not either winning or losing by a good margin. The skeptics among you might jump back to what I wrote earlier and use this as evidence that the guy is just not a clutch hitter, and that would be hard to argue against given the evidence above.
If there’s an one metric held up as a scapegoat for the Cubs’ occasional struggles, it’s hitting with runners in scoring position. Funny thing about scapegoats, though, they’re often mistakenly assigned all the blame. While the Cubs hit only .251 with runners in scoring position, that’s just 4 points lower than their overall average. Heyward isn’t helping either of those numbers, batting .229 on the whole and .202 with runners in scoring position. Wait, that’s not helping my point.
Okay, let’s dial the pressure up and give them RISP with two outs. In those situations, the Cubs are hitting .212 as a team compared to an MLB average of .231 and NL average of .224. Addison Russell, who has received a good deal of praise for his clutch hitting, has put up an above-average .229/.327/.458 (.786 OPS) slash line. Heyward, on the other hand, is hitting .256/.356/.436 (.791 OPS).
Among Cubs with at least 30 such situational at-bats, only Javy Baez (.258) and Kris Bryant (.289) have better averages than Heyward and only Bryant (.953) and Anthony Rizzo (.925) lay claim to a higher OPS. Kinda shoots the not-clutch narrative in the foot, huh?
Okay, so now my mind is working and I’m thinking moving Heyward down in the order is a really good idea. After all, logic holds that he’s got a better shot at getting more at-bats with his team in the lead if he’s hitting sixth or seventh. Even taking an overly skeptical view, he’d also have a better chance of hitting with the Cubs in a hole. Except that’s not been the case, at least not yet.
Fact is, Heyward’s .231 (16-for-69) average from near the bottom of the order has been anything but nice. But it’s being driven by a sub-.240 BABIP that’s the bastard child of bad luck and baffling mechanics (I would have used either “bad” or “worse” there, I just wanted to be alliterative without also being repetitive). Beating the ball into the ground on the infield isn’t necessarily the key to a good average, as evidenced by that .069 average when he does so. Again, not nice.
To that end, Heyward has been working with hitting coach John Mallee to get a little more elevation on the ball. Being a little more aggressive might help a bit too. Though he’s seeing more first-pitch strikes (54.8%) than ever, Heyward isn’t swinging early very often. He’s been in forty 0-1 counts so far this season despite swinging and missing at a career-low rate (6.4%). In other words, the struggling outfielder is looking at a lot of strikes, which is unfortunate because he’s hitting .407 with a .927 OPS when he swings at the first pitch. Once it goes to 0-1, however, he’s slashing .175/.195/.200 (that’s a .395 OPS for those of you without a calculator handy).
So the solution seems simple enough, right? Loosen up and swing early. And maybe the Cubs could just hang a crooked number right away in every game. Yeah, I think that would work. It’d also help if Heyward would untuck his hands and get them away from his body to prevent that diving, arms-only swing that chops the ball into the ground. It’s obviously a lot more complicated than all that, but there are a few simple tweaks that might improve his performance down the stretch.
Correcting mental mistakes is never easy, but the good news is that Heyward recognizes the issues and appears willing to address them. Maybe Friday’s home run is a sign that things are headed in the right direction. Even if it’s not, we’re talking about a guy who’s put up 1.4 fWAR in spite of his flagging offensive production. If he can make even a modest improvement at the plate it will mean really big things for the Cubs moving forward.