Four-Play: Reborn Jason Heyward Paces Cubs’ Offensive Juggernaut

Seems like only a week ago the murmur of voices questioning Chili Davis‘s aptitude for his role with the Cubs was rising to a legitimate rabble. And who knows, maybe the questions are still there. It’s just really hard to hear them these days over the staccato beat of hits coming from everyone in the lineup.

Leading the charge has been none other than Jason Heyward, the hitting instructor’s star pupil. An incorrigible swing-tinkerer by nature, Heyward’s mechanics have been in a constant state of flux since he debuted with a bang against the Cubs and Carlos Zambrano. But it’s almost as though he’s succeeded in spite of himself, wringing the bat like a wet rag and diving into pitches like Michael Phelps going for the gold.

The wonky moves have long limited Heyward’s power, something the Cubs thought they’d be able to free up when they brought him aboard prior to 2016 as that season’s most coveted free agent. Instead, everything they did to “fix” him served only to twist him up further. That goes for more than just the physical side of the game, as Heyward’s funky swing had him in a mental funk as well.

Enter Davis, a coach more concerned with a holistic hitting approach than with metrics and mechanics.

“I try to bring a mentality and not as much a philosophy,” Davis explained to the fans at Cubs Convention this past winter. “Everybody has a philosophy and to me a lot of them match. I try to bring a mentality in how we approach the games day in and day out. Trust is huge.”

He knew Heyward would be his biggest project, if it’s even fair to refer to the player as such, so he got started on building that trust as soon as he’d been hired to replace John Mallee.

“We started off in early November one day a week and we’ve graduated to Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Davis said.

The immediate results were discouraging, to say the least, as Heyward was slashing .200/.302/.289 with a .270 wOBA and a wRC+ of only 68 through his first 54 plate appearances. That wOBA is 43 points below league average and the wRC+ means he was 32 percent worse than the average hitter. Frustration, thy nickname was J-Hey.

But then a funny thing happened: Heyward started to hit. He closed April with a 153 wRC+ and carried some better habits into May. While the changes weren’t plainly evident in the box score, Heyward’s batted-ball peripherals showed that he was on the cusp of sustainable production. The best part? He was crushing fastballs.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” went the general reaction to those linked posts and other positive commentary. It’s not like you can really blame the skeptics, though, not when Heyward had provided two previous years of being handcuffed by heaters and rolling over to the right side. The resurgence might end up being just a fluke or a cruel joke in the end.

The only ones laughing since the calendar turned to June have been Heyward and Davis, along with a few of the fervent believers who maintained faith in the right fielder when all else told them to abandon it. Heyward went into Saturday’s hit-fest slashing .306/.346/.500 with a .359 wOBA and 125 wRC+ in 105 June plate appearances. And, boy howdy, did he cap the month with a doozy.

Heyward had four hits Saturday afternoon, the third time he’s accomplished that feat in the past month alone. To put that in perspective, he had totaled only seven games with four or more hits over the course of his entire career prior to June. Three of those efforts came all the way back in his rookie year of 2010 and the most recent before this past month’s surge was on April 24, 2016.

The mulit-hit effort pushed Heyward’s season line to .291/.349/.440, with a .340 wOBA and a 112 wRC+ that is at least 24 points higher than either of his previous two seasons. It’s also four points higher than his career average, which was admittedly hurt by his early time with the Cubs. I’m sure there are some who could couch this as being anything other than incredibly encouraging, but I’d hate to be at a party with those folks.

All this talk about Heyward and I haven’t even gotten into Javy Baez and some of the changes he’s made under Davis. And what about Albert Almora Jr., who collected three hits of his own Saturday to push his average to an NL-leading .332? What’s more, he’s doing that with a better split against right-handed pitchers, who I’ve been told he can’t hit well.

Listen, I’m not naive enough to think that we can expect Heyward to continue climbing like this or that he’ll be who he was for the Braves from here on out. It’d be similarly silly to heap all the credit at Chili Davis’s feet, just as it would be to lay the blame for any poor performances on his shoulders. But it’s kind of hard to argue with the stats.

Huh, that’s purdy good. And Heyward is right there at the heart of it all.

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