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Heyward's intangibles balance out struggles

March 27, 2017

MESA, Ariz. -- Jason Heyward has never been a typical baseball superstar. He has never hit .300; his lifetime batting average is .262. Heyward has never hit 30 home runs in a season and only once hit even 20. He has never stolen 25 bases in a season and never

MESA, Ariz. -- Jason Heyward has never been a typical baseball superstar. He has never hit .300; his lifetime batting average is .262. Heyward has never hit 30 home runs in a season and only once hit even 20. He has never stolen 25 bases in a season and never come particularly close to 100 RBIs or 100 runs scored. Heyward has never finished in the Top 10 in the MVP Award balloting. He has only made one All-Star team -- during his rookie season almost seven years ago.
And yet, before the 2016 season, the Chicago Cubs gave Heyward the second-largest deal ever given to an outfielder (behind only slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who couldn't be more different from Heyward as a player).
This is because the Cubs and club president Theo Epstein -- who are supposed to be as sober and analytical as any organization in baseball -- bet on something that sober and analytical organizations are not supposed to bet on. They bet on Heyward's intangibles, or the stuff that we used to call intangibles anyway.
They bet on Heyward's defense. They bet on his athleticism and feel for the game. More than anything, they bet on his character.

In 2016, that's exactly what the Cubs got from Heyward: defense, feel for the game and character. He had -- no exaggeration here -- one of the worst offensive seasons for an outfielder since World War II ended. Heyward hit .230, slugged .325, his 70 OPS+ was the fourth worst in baseball, behind three light-hitting middle infielders. He lost his swing and never found it. He hit .104 in the postseason. It's almost impossible to overstate just how bad Heyward was offensively.
And yet … Heyward was a hero for the first Cubs team to win a World Series in more than a century. He was a hero for the way he played right field; Epstein contends he had one of the greatest defensive seasons in baseball history, and there are Statcast™ numbers that support his enthusiasm. The Statcast™ people break up defensive plays using stars -- a one-star play is made 90-95 percent of the time, while a five-star play is made less than 25 percent of the time.
Heyward made all but two one-star, two-star and three-star plays -- the highest percentage in all of baseball. He positioned himself so well and was in such sync with Cubs pitchers that he rarely had to even try to make a four- or five-star play, though he was among the best in baseball at those plays, too. Heyward was a defensive wizard.
Then there was the leadership. Everyone knows by now about Heyward's impromptu speech during the 17-minute rain delay in Game 7 of the World Series. He doesn't want to talk about it anymore -- "The only people who know what was said are the people in that room," he said -- but no less an authority than Epstein said Heyward's talk made all the difference.
"Most rain delays, players come into the clubhouse, go to their lockers, stare at their lockers, check their phones, take their jerseys off," Epstein said. "They do something individual and isolating. I think we lose the game if that happens. Instead, our players had the instinct to come together shoulder to shoulder, talk about going out and winning the game. And then 10 minutes later, they do it. That's what Jason meant to us."

The fact that Heyward had earned that much respect from his teammates after such a disappointing offensive season, after he was nearly helpless during the postseason … well, that's the character thing that inspired the Cubs to give him such an enormous deal.
And it is why the Cubs believe that Heyward will became a good offensive player again.
"After we won the World Series," Epstein said, "he went to Cabo for like five days. And then, as soon as he came back -- so a week to 10 days after we won the World Series -- he moves to Arizona and is on the field every day working. He spends a month of work just hitting off a tee. Then a month of batting practice. Then several live weeks of pitching.
"And every day he's doing video work, every day, reshaping his swing, getting a little bit better pre-pitch position, getting a little bit better path with the barrel through the baseball. Then he's working on his timing, working on getting ready a little bit earlier. Now he's got this new swing."
Heyward's new swing has been one of the big talks of camp, in part because some scouts don't see a big difference from his old swing. He changed his bat angle (starting with the bat pointing more toward the sky), lowered his hands, spent a lot of time trying to clear his front hip so he won't get beat on inside pitches.
"You definitely see him trying things," one scout told me. "But I don't see the whole swing looking very different."

Well, the results haven't been there so far, if you want to read into Heyward's .152 spring batting average. On the plus said, he has hit the ball somewhat harder (he's hit two home runs in 46 plate appearances, a lot better pace than the seven he hit in 530 at-bats last season). And Heyward said he feels like the swing is in good shape now, it's just a matter of timing.
"I'm not even thinking about the swing anymore," Heyward said. "I just need to react."
Will Heyward hit in 2017? That's one of the season's most fascinating questions. His career trajectory has been odd. Heyward's best season might be his first; he came up as a 20-year-old rookie, hit with some power, walked a bunch (his .393 on-base percentage that year is 30 points better than any subsequent season). Many people think he changed his approach after his rookie season for reasons that remain unclear.
It is true that Heyward has rebounded from rough seasons before. He hit .227 as a 21-year-old and the next year bashed a career-high 27 homers. Heyward had a couple of sluggish offensive years and then went to St. Louis in 2015 and hit .293/.359/.439 with a career-high 33 doubles and he got some NL MVP Award votes. That's when the Cubs gave him the big deal.
Still, Heyward's 2016 season wasn't just an offseason. He was helpless at the plate. It won't be easy to come back from that. But the Cubs have placed their bet -- seven more years and another $169 million -- on Heyward's resolve and makeup. And after Heyward's 2016 season, when he somehow found a way to be one of the team's heroes even in the midst of a nightmare offensive season, the Cubs believe in that makeup more than ever.
"If in baseball, you have a culture where it's OK for guys to hide every time they struggle, you'll never amount to anything," Epstein said. "The critical moments are defined by how you respond to adversity, as a player but as a team too. Here is one of our highest-paid players, a huge character guy, and he's struggling. How does he respond to that? He doesn't hide. He holds his head up high. He takes responsibility. And he leads -- he still leads. That's just a great example for everyone.
"Who knows how it's going to turn out for Jason? We don't. But he deserves it. Everyone is pulling for him."

Joe Posnanski is a No. 1 New York Times best-selling author, an Emmy Award-winning writer and has been awarded National Sportswriter of the Year.