There’s an axiom regarding habits that tells us it takes 21 days to either establish or break one. That can obviously vary and I’m going to take some liberties with timing as we continue, but Jason Heyward’s opposite-field rocket in Monday’s defeat of the Reds got me thinking again about the changes in his swing and how they’ve taken hold.
In general, it’s a bad idea to view a baseball player’s production in arbitrary snapshots of x games at a time, particularly when we’re zooming in on those samples to get really close. In Heyward’s case, however, the adjustments he’s made necessitate a little cropping. In my best estimation, he changed his swing by eliminating the toe-tap back on August 14 in a series against the Cardinals. He then got in three games against Milwaukee before sitting for four days and returning to the lineup when the Cubs hit San Diego.
Things started out well for the rested right fielder, who collected hits in his first seven and nine of his first 10 games back from the bench. A three-hit game at home against the Giants pushed his average to .308 during the 13-game stretch. Of course, that little outburst came after a pair of hitless games and was then followed by seven more. It had gotten so frustrating that Heyward actually asked for, and was given, the ball after singling off of Carlos Martinez in the 5th inning of the Cubs’ 7-0 win over the Cardinals on September 14.
Whether you’re Mike Trout or Tim Salmon, Joe Randa or Tony Renda, baseball is a game of streaks. That’s been compounded in Heyward’s case by a mechanical tweak more than two-thirds of the way through the season. As such, it’s really hard to look at what he’s done over the last month or so and see some real patterns emerging. But that’s not going to stop me from trying.
That cathartic hit against the Cards actually told me quite a lot about where Heyward’s head is at. Maybe I’m reading way too much into it, but I saw a guy who was both relieved to have broken a hitless streak and who was refusing to take himself too seriously at the same time. Life can be really difficult when you get stuck inside your own head, so I took it as a good sign that J-Hey was able to stay in the moment and have a little fun at his own expense.
He went on to collect another hit later in that same game and even drew a walk, which had been an increasingly rare occurrence for him this season. Seriously, it was just his sixth free pass in a 44-game stretch (3.5%). It was also his third consecutive game with a walk, only the third time that’s happened all season (4/20 – 4/23; 5/11 – 5/14). What’s more, Heyward racked up a pair of doubles in his next game against Milwaukee before collecting two more hits against the Brewers in his following start.
If we’re being completely honest, this could be just a blip on the radar that eventually fades into the rest of Heyward’s forgettable season at the plate. Despite hanging that clothesline out it left-center Monday night, he hasn’t been hitting the ball harder or going oppo more frequently of late than he did when tapping his toe. In fact, soft contact and pulled balls are actually up over the last month or so. There is, however, an uptick in line-drive percentage, from 19.0% prior to the swing change to 26.9% after. Nice.
I have no idea whether he’ll be able to keep these results up into October and I can only theorize as to what’s going on in Heyward’s head. Still, it struck me when I looked back over the game logs and picked up a fun little nugget there. The time between his first game back in San Diego and that single against C-Mart and the Cards: 21 games.
If Heyward’s got a new habit going, it’s one I’d like to see him stick with for a while.