It’s no secret that Jason Heyward is having an epic, epic bad season. Heyward is not just last in wRC+ for right fielders, but last by a wide margin. He has the seventh-worst ISO in all the land, worse than Billy Hamilton. Worse than Cesar Hernandez. Worse than Alexei Ramirez. Alexei Ramirez, for God’s sake. Finally acknowledging the soul-crushing reality, Cubs manager Joe Maddon benched Heyward last Friday.
This is historically bad power from a right fielder. In the wild-card era, Heyward’s ISO constitutes the 11th-worst power season for a right fielder. Of the ten other seasons, Ichiro! owns five of them, and Nick Markakis two more. So only four actual guys have managed a worse ISO in right than Heyward since 1994.
Heyward’s power has declined against all pitches, but not evenly. (I’m actually using ISO x 1000 to eliminate those pesky decimal points):
Pitch 2016 ISO Career ISO Diff
4-seamer 143 154 -11
2-seamer 087 177 -90
changeup 029 160 -131
slider 083 157 -74
curve 000 122 -122
In battling the 4-seamer, 2016 Heyward looks pretty much like the factory model. Against the other pitches, 2016 Heyward looks like Enzo Hernandez. Back in May, Jeff Sullivan wondered why Heyward was swinging disproportionately often at high pitches when historically he had been a better low-ball hitter. The above chart may provide an answer. Four-seamers tend to live upstairs, while the other pitches like to drink Milwaukee’s Best down in the basement den. Heyward may have made a rational adjustment, swinging more often at the pitch he can hit (or rather, pitches that look like the pitch he can hit) and less often at the others.
Even if accurate, this simply answers one riddle with another. What could have made a historically good low-ball hitter suddenly lose the lower half of the strike zone? And the power disappearance was indeed sudden. In 2015, Heyward actually hit with more power in the second half, though his ISO did drop off in September.
Heyward may have begun hearing the spine-tingling incidental music back in 2014. That year his power against lefties, seldom menacing, completely winked out.
Year ISO vs. L
This may have been foreshadowing, or not. There is no clear pitch-type pattern evident in Heyward’s disappearing power against lefties. He collapsed against all offerings, doing somewhat less badly only against the slider. Indeed, one of the main criticisms of his eight-year contract was that Heyward had become a platoon player.
In 2016 the platoon split has disappeared, but not in a good way. Heyward has actually hit lefties with more power than righties this year (.096 vs. .083). But let’s face it, for hitters, almost any number that begins with “.0” is a wrong number.
The most likely explanation is some form of injury. Heyward had wrist problems earlier this year, and wrist injuries notoriously sap power. But .088 is whole lotta sappage. When Derrek Lee hurt his wrist in 2006 his ISO plummeted to … .189. Certainly one can imagine any number of nagging injuries that slow bat speed or reduce plate coverage. But it seems peculiar that Heyward would struggle least against the pitch that is usually the most overpowering. Perhaps Heyward is selling out to get to the 4-seamer because the injury has slowed his bat enough that he simply has to get started early.
Another possibility, perhaps, is a vision problem, as very briefly suggested in the comments to Sullivan’s post in May. Perhaps Heyward is able to pick out the 4-seamer, but unable to differentiate reliably among the other pitches, thus approaching them all with punchless caution. A vision problem could also be causing Heyward to sell out as discussed above. In either case, selling out would seem to cut against Heyward’s grain as a (sometimes maddeningly) patient hitter.
There is nevertheless some evidence Heyward is trying to start the bat earlier, not because of ocular or muscular problems, but because of a complex, misaligned swing. There have been a number of stories concerning Heyward’s poor mechanics, but most of them were written this season, when the poor results became manifest. Outright criticism of his swing, at least in public, was relatively uncommon before this year.
But there were signs, perhaps (as signs are wont to be) obvious only in retrospect. In 2014, David Lee wrote an excellent piece scouting Heyward’s rapidly evolving stances — the pictures alone are worth a look. Two years earlier, Terence Moore wrote about Heyward’s swing coach praising Heyward for having Plans A, B, and C at the plate. Both of these pieces are hopeful, treating Heyward’s willingness to tinker as a sign of dedication — a player relentlessly seeking continuous improvement.
But relentlessness doesn’t solve every problem, and improvement is very rarely continuous. Hitters can be comically addicted to routine, fearing that the slightest change will plunge their careers into Oylerian Darkness. But there is some virtue to having a baseline from which to work. In music, it’s literally a bass line. In oral presentations, it’s a theme. In cooking, it’s a recipe. In none of these cases does the baseline translate directly into real results, but it provides critical direction so that the (or at least an) end result actually results.
It’s possible that Heyward has lost his anchor. He wouldn’t be the first player to do so. Roy Halladay famously had to reconstruct his pitching motion in the purgatory of Dunedin. But Halladay had become an arsonist, spraying the field with a 10.64 ERA. Until this year, Heyward hadn’t ever truly pancaked. It’s possible that Heyward is tinkering his career into oblivion. I’m not sure I buy this, but at this point there is even less evidence for the competing theories. A serious bone, muscle, or vision problem probably would have landed him on the DL.
Heyward may be treating his swing like jazz, but baseball is the blues. At least he plays in the right city to learn that lesson.
I'm a lawyer. But please don't hold that against me. If you're twitterious, follow me @MyBrokenDog.