Heyward, Javy, and Hamels: Observations from Brewers Series

Time for a round-up piece of various observations from the Cubs’ rollercoaster weekend. Let’s start with Jason Heyward, whose unexpected three-homer outburst was almost enough to quiet the large contingent of critics who blame him for his contract.

I’ve long been viewed as a Heyward defender. This isn’t quite accurate, but I do defend him against over-the-top criticism. When the Cubs signed him, I didn’t think he was a a critical piece given how easy it is to find less expensive contact-hitting outfielders. But as a display of big-market muscle-flexing toward the Cardinals, it did have a menacing theatrically even the League of Shadows would appreciate.

Criticism of Heyward’s contract is fair, but not of Heyward himself, which is why I generally defend him. His game is what it is regardless of the size of his payroll hit. He’s a proven World Series winner, something none of the core on the Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals, or New York Yankees can claim.

He also hits power pitchers awfully well (.292 over the last five seasons). This is an extremely rare talent on a Cubs team that struggles to score runs against such pitchers (third worst in NL so far this year) and something that at-a-glance stats like OPS+ do not factor in.

So the many calls this year – prior to Friday and Saturday’s games – to bench Heyward because of his high groundball rate and five double plays seemed misguided. No doubt it served as a form of redirected frustration, but even before his power eruption this weekend, Heyward was tied for second on the team in RBI and had a .292 batting average. Given just those numbers, it’s very hard to make a respectable argument to cut back on playing time. And replace with what? More at-bats for Kyle Schwarber? Call up Ian Happ?

After Heyward’s great game Saturday, he’s either first or second on the team in hits, homers, RBI, and OPS. So expect the frothiness of the anti-Heyward junta to abate for a few weeks. It is entirely possible Heyward doesn’t hit another homer for six weeks, but maintaining his ability to hit power arms will keep him in line to get at least 500 plate appearances.

Heyward and Baez’s power

I recently noted the counterintuitive performances of Heyward and Javier Báez against high velocity, so it was interesting to see both homer Saturday against Brewers’ hard-throwing Corbin Burnes. But true to form, Heyward’s homer came by turning around a 96 mph fastball, while Baez feasted on an 87 mph slider that didn’t bite.

Why Burnes even threw Báez a hittable non-fastball is a head-scratcher. In his first two at-bats, Burnes threw Báez eight consecutive four-seam fastballs in the 95-96 mph range. Javy swung through two of these for a strikeout his first time up, then grounded out in his second plate appearance when he couldn’t elevate a waist-high heater at 94.

Then, in the top of the 6th, Burnes started Báez off by giving him his first non-fastball of the game. Thankful for the bone, Baez took it straight out to center.

Hamels vs. Smyly

The biggest strategic decision the Cubs’ braintrust made this past offseason was picking up the $20 million option on Cole Hamels’ age-35 season. This effectively left no budget space of significance to upgrade other parts of the roster. Thus fortunes of this season may well come down to how well Yu Darvish bounces back and whether Hamels proves worth that huge option.

In order to clear space both roster and payroll space, the Cubs traded lefty Drew Smyly to the Rangers. It’s early, but in case you were wondering how the two have stacked up in the early going and whether the Cubs should have kept the cheaper southpaw…

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