Heyward batting leadoff already paying dividends
CHICAGO -- Before Cubs manager Joe Maddon wrote Jason Heyward's name into the leadoff spot earlier this week, he had a conversation with the outfielder. Maddon did not want the switch to disrupt Heyward's standout season and needed to ensure that the veteran was totally on board.
Heyward gave his approval and also had no issues with sliding to center field more often in the wake of right fielder Nicholas Castellanos' arrival via trade from the Tigers. Heyward's flexibility has been important for the Cubs, who are trying to get more out of their offense. They did just that with his help in a 6-2 win over the Brewers on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field.
"He's shouldered a lot for this team this year and he continues to do that," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said on Friday morning. "I think that's a really positive step, that he's sort of embracing that responsibility."
In the first inning, Heyward lifted a 2-0 cutter from Milwaukee starter Zach Davies, sending it high over left-center field and into the basket above the bricks and ivy for a leadoff home run. It marked Heyward's eighth career leadoff homer, but his first for the Cubs and first since Aug. 27, 2014, when he was with Atlanta.
Heyward's 16th shot of the season also lit the spark for the Cubs, who pulled within a half-game of the National League Central-leading Cardinals (who had the day off on Friday).
"It's about me wanting to make the most of my time playing baseball," Heyward said. "Whatever works best for whatever team I'm on, I'm going to try to do that. And right now, that's what they feel is best, so let's go. It's not look around and see what works best for me. If it can be done, try and get it done.
"I just asked Joe to be patient with me. Just give me a shot and here we go."
All nine players in the starting lineup recorded at least one hit and while Chicago launched two home runs -- Javier Báez added a two-run shot in the third -- the offense was multifaceted in its attack. Pitcher José Quintana capped off a string of three hits (with two first-to-third sprints) with an RBI single in the third. The final two runs came via groundouts not long after leadoff doubles.
By the sixth inning, the Cubs had scored more runs (six) than they produced in three games combined in the last series in St. Louis. That backed a solid showing from the lefty Quintana, who allowed two runs in six-plus frames, striking out five.
"We have to get back to that spray-ability that we had," Maddon said of the offense. "And still, we're going to hit our homers -- of course we are. But I don't want to be so reliant upon that when you get a good pitcher and he's not giving you the home run pitch. You've got to be able to do something else. That's what it's about."
And that now starts with Heyward atop the order.
Entering Friday, the Cubs had a .215/.285/.393 slash line out of the leadoff spot, which has featured nine different players this season. Kyle Schwarber filled that role most of the time between May and July. When the season started, Albert Almora Jr. and Ben Zobrist split the duties. Maddon also tried Daniel Descalso and Robel Garcia -- with cameos from Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Baez -- in the spot.
During the month of July, when the Cubs ranked 10th in the NL in overall OPS (.759), the team produced an NL-worst .545 OPS out of the No. 1 slot. For the month, Chicago had a .152/.222/.323 slash line at leadoff with a 41 wRC+, indicating that the offensive output was 59 percent below league average.
Enter Heyward, who now has a .354 on-base percentage this season after hitting the homer and drawing a walk in Friday's win. Overall, the outfielder is hitting .277 with an .816 OPS and 111 wRC+, his best offensive season since joining the Cubs in 2016.
"By embracing leadoff," Epstein said, "and getting on base up there, just at the rate that he's done so far this year -- a .350-.360 on-base up at leadoff -- and his ability to run the bases, that really helps this team."
Maddon also praised Heyward -- a five-time Gold Glove Award winner in right field -- for being so open to moving to center more regularly. That opens the door for maximizing the offense early and in-game maneuvering to improve the defense in the later innings.
"Listen, he's maybe the best right fielder in the game," Maddon said. "And then he's willing to go do this thing in center field."
Heyward said he expressed to Epstein shortly before the All-Star break that he was open to playing more center if it would put the Cubs in a better position to win. The same thinking applies to him agreeing to take over as the leadoff man.
"Man, I want to try to get better at everything," Heyward said. "And I want to try to do the best I can for my group this year."