It’s widely renowned around the fanbase that Jason Heyward has not lived up to that eight-year, $184 million contract he signed prior to the 2016 season. He has his horrific 2016 and sub-par 2017 to thank for that fanbase perception. However, what the casual fan seems to overlook is how formidable he has been the past two years. And when you look at a subset of his 2019 statistics, there’s a very real trend that suggests he may be on his way to turning in a 3.5+ WAR season in 2020.
On the surface, there’s nothing too abnormal about his 2019 offensive numbers, as he accumulated an OPS of .772 and a wRC+ of 101. But what the overall numbers fail to showcase is Heyward’s numbers with and without batting leadoff. Take a look at the table below, which shows a significant difference.
Many fans may scoff at those splits and say they aren’t relevant in predicting his 2020 performance, but I beg to differ. There’s a fundamental change in both approach and mindset that accompanies batting leading off and I believe it significantly altered Heyward’s psyche at the plate. Not only that, Heyward has publicly stated that he does not like leading off, yet Joe Maddon decided to throw him into the fire last season because there “were no other options” (which I disagree with). This is the type of incompetence displayed by Maddon that drove many fans crazy. You have a guy in Heyward who has been a disappointment relative to expectations his entire tenure as a Cub, yet you throw him into a position that necessitates a change of mindset and approach right when he’s finally starting to put it together offensively (he had a .928 OPS before his first game batting leadoff)? How does that make any rational sense? It clearly affected his offensive output, and the table above proves it.
Now let’s get into the other side of the diamond: fielding. Overall, Heyward had far and away the worst defensive metrics of his career in 2019, proven by his overall +2 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) (6 runs lower than his second worst). This is where Heyward naysayers come out and say his defensive value is in a deep decline. While he may not be the same outfielder that recorded +24 DRS in 2015 (an absurd stat that I’m not sure anyone could replicate), pointing to last year’s overall numbers and stating that his athleticism and defensive abilities are in a decline is a lazy way to put it. There’s a bigger story to tell when looking deeper into the data.
The story is this: Heyward played 3.5x as many innings in centerfield in 2019 as any other season, in addition to playing his lowest amount of innings in right field in his entire career. So to put it simply, Heyward was forced to play out of position all season long, which dramatically affected his defensive value, which in turn lowered his overall Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Essentially, advanced stats are saying that somehow Heyward was less valuable to the team due to his elite defensive versatility. How does that make any sense? Honestly, it’s a flaw in the sabermetric, and it needs to be changed. Without his ability to play centerfield on command, Nicholas Castellanos is never a Cub. That’s a fact.
According to FanGraphs, Heyward had +6 DRS in right field last season in 618.2 innings played and -4 DRS in centerfield in 603.1 innings played. If you take his +6 in right field and extrapolate it into a full season’s worth of innings, it rounds out to +12 DRS, which would’ve been good for third best in baseball among right fielders with 800+ IP. Seriously, the notion that Heyward is no longer a top defensive right fielder is hilariously incorrect and, besides biased perception, there’s no data to back that claim up.
What I’m getting at is Joe Maddon could not have utilized Jason Heyward any worse than he did last season. While there wasn’t much Maddon could do defensively due to Albert Almora being unplayable, Ross will not have that same issue in 2020. Ian Happ played as well as anyone on the team the last two months of 2019, so he should start in center field opening day. That leaves right field wide open. There’s been some mention of a possible platoon of Heyward and newly acquired outfielder Steven Souza Jr. in right field, but I’d rather have J-Hey man down that position full time. With the splits he put up last year, he deserves the opportunity to show if he can put up those numbers over a full season. It’s pretty simple: Bat him anywhere but leadoff and fixate him in right field the first 40 games of the season and see what production he turns in. If last year is any indication, David Ross would not regret it.