Why Cubs fans needn’t worry about J-Hey

Chicago hero and Cubs GM Theo Epstein inked RF Jason Heyward to an eight-year, $184MM deal this past offseason (average annual value $23MM). At the time this seemed to many like a fantastic signing. The Cubs got a twenty-six year old outfielder with a fantastic glove and a great bat for only $23MM a year and they would be able to control him through the end of his prime (unless he elects to exercise either of his opt-out clauses in 2018 or 2019, though the 2019 opt-out is contingent on him getting 550 PA that season) and then he would come off the books. It seemed like a stroke of genius on the part of Epstein. And then Heyward actually began to play.

A quick look at the numbers tells the fans that Heyward’s calling card has not been his bat, but instead his spectacular defense. 2016 was Heyward’s seventh year in the league, and his gold glove this year brings his career tally to four. Since entering the league in 2010, Heyward is in the top-10 for Defense (a Fangraphs metric you can read more about here), first in Ultimate Zone Rating (a sabermetric stat which compares the performance of a fielder and outcomes of his actions to that of an “average” fielder) and second in Defensive Runs Saved (a similar defensive statistic), only to superhuman defender Andrelton Simmons.

On the opposite side of the ball, however, since entering the league in 2010 Heyward ranks behind the likes of Andre Ethier and Neil Walker in Fangraphs’ Offensive Runs Above Average stat (more here), checking in at 54 overall. While 54th over a 7-year period is nothing to sneeze at, I don’t necessarily think that paying a guy a premium primarily for defense is a smart financial move.

Back to defense. UZR is a counting stat, but UZR/150 provides an alternative; it takes UZR and extrapolates it to a 150-game pace. Since 2010, among players with at least 2000 innings played in the OF, Heyward ranks 8th in UZR/150 at 18.0 (for reference, anything above 15 is considered elite, gold glove caliber defense). This is extremely impressive when coupled with his bat, but are we also saying that guys with a similarly high UZR and batting statistics should be given nearly decade-long deals?

Let’s take a look at Heyward’s batting stats. His career slash line is .262/.346/.415, which isn’t spectacular but is very good when considering Heyward’s defensive ability. Diving deeper, we see a change in his approach after 2012. In his first three seasons (428 games), Heyward was viewed as the next phenom, slashing  .261/.352/.447, launching 59 HR, 77 doubles and adding 41 SB on the basepaths (his SB% was 71.9%, just above league average, which hovers around 70%). The slash line isn’t that different, although we can see he definitely offered more power (the last column is slugging percentage), and a slightly higher OBP.

His most recent four seasons, (549 games) he has been less productive offensively. His singles haven’t stopped coming, but he has yet to recapture the power stroke which he had exhibited in his early years. Dating back to 2013, he is slashing .263/.341/.391 with only 45 HR. He has hit more doubles, 108 in total, which is just about in line with his seasonal average from 2010-2012. He’s also been more successful when attempting to steal; he’s swiped 56 bags in 71 attempts, good for an outstanding 79% SB%.

One possible explanation for the dip in HR is that Heyward has simply stopped trying to swing for the fences as much. He’s hit 14 fewer HR in the second half of his career over 121 additional games, but he’s also struck out only 354 times since 2013, as opposed to 373 times from 2010-2012. This means that he’s struck out 19 fewer times since 2013 than he did in the first three years of his career in about 550 more PA. Logically following, it probably means he should be getting on base more, but the opposite is actually true: his walk rate fell from 11.6% in the first half of his career to 9.8% in the second half.

If you take 2016 entirely out of the equation, though, we see Heyward jump up nearly 20 spots in Fangraphs’ Off stat, to 35 overall. This is probably a combination of him having a poor offensive 2016 season and the fact that guys like Kris Bryant had only been in the league for one year. After looking at his peripherals, though, we see that the paltry 7 HR he hit and the .230 average were anomalous.

Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), is a stat which indicates a how frequently a ball put in play results in a hit. It takes strikeouts, homers (because those are hits regardless of what team you’re playing) and sac flies out of the equation. The reasoning behind BABIP is that after you hit the ball, the play is largely out of your hands. If a player is hitting against a stellar defensive team like the Cubs (which Heyward wouldn’t be), Indians, or Giants, ground balls and line drives are far less likely to be base hits than if that same player hits an identical ground ball or line drive against the Athletics, D-Backs or Padres. Fly balls are nearly always home runs or outs, regardless of team. The only two seasons in which Heyward has hit below .250 were the seasons in which his BABIP was below .270. Excluding 2016, Heyward’s career BABIP is .309. His BABIP was 43 points below that this past season at .266. BABIP is mostly not controllable by the hitter, and tends to fluctuate year-to-year, so whenever a player has an abnormally low or high BABIP, professional statisticians typically attribute this to luck. This points to positive regression in the future, so expect future Heyward to hit much closer to his career .261 average than to 2016’s .230.

Some other indicators that J-Hey’s disastrous 2016 from an offensive perspective is extremely unlikely to be repeated: his 4.8% HR/FB, 91% Z-Contact%, 26 O-Swing%, and 6.0 SwStr%. HR/FB is the number of homers hit per fly ball, so a 4.8% means that J-Hey hit one home run roughly every 22 fly balls in 2016. His career average is 11.6%, or about one dinger every 9 fly balls.  The MLB average is between 10% and 11%, though home run hitters like Giancarlo Stanton and Chris Davis have career averages over 20% (25.4% and 24% respectively. Like BABIP, abnormal HR/FB is mostly attributable to luck. Heyward’s abnormally low HR/FB in 2016 points to some upcoming positive regression.

Z-Contact% and O-Swing% are similar stats. Z-Contact% measures how frequently the hitter makes contact with pitches he swings at that are inside the strike zone. O-Swing% measures how frequently the hitter swung at a pitch outside the zone. Heyward’s career averages in these categories are 87.6% and 27.2% respectively, and the fact that he posted the second-best Z-Contact% and the third-best O-Swing% of his career in 2016 bodes well for his future numbers and seems to indicate that 2016 was more bad luck (BABIP and HR/FB-related) than anything else.

SwStr% is related to Z-Contact% and O-Swing%, but different in that it doesn’t measure anything related to the strike zone, only how frequently the player swings and misses. SwStr% can be translated into plain English as “percent of the time the player whiffs.” Naturally, this means that a lower percentage is better because the hitter is missing less often. Heyward has improved his SwStr% each of the past four seasons, and his 6.0% demonstrates excellent plate discipline when compared to the 9.5% league average.

Jason Heyward’s 2016 season ended on a high note with a win in the World Series, but considering he didn’t start the first three games because of his bat and hit poorly all season, Cubs fans are likely disconcerted by the fact that Heyward is owed $23MM per season for the next seven years. They shouldn’t be. When Heyward’s contract expires (or he opts out), I have faith that the Heyward the Cubs got will have been the Heyward the Cubs paid for.


(Photo credit: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)


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