Heyward making impact despite down year at plate

Veteran playing Gold Glove-caliber defense, mentoring young players

October 14th, 2016

CHICAGO -- For some, 's production will always be distorted by the eight-year, $184 million contract he signed last December. A financial commitment of that magnitude yields grand expectations -- and Heyward would be the first to admit that, as a first-year Cub, he did not live up them.

Heyward's slash line of .230/.306/.325 during the regular season was uninspiring, and his .631 OPS was the lowest such mark in a seven-year career that had previously taken him through Atlanta and St. Louis.

But to define Heyward's value solely by the numbers printed on the back of his baseball card would be unfair and incomplete. His contributions are more complex, and his presence among a crop of young position players critical to the cohesiveness that has developed within the clubhouse walls.

"I think J-Hey is probably one of the most if not more professional guys I've ever played with," said , who will start Game 1 of the National League Championship Series for the Cubs against the Dodgers on Saturday (8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT, FS1). "J-Hey grinded his butt off this whole season. For whatever reason, he squared up a lot of balls this year that were hit at people, and you never saw him pout, never saw him give up. If anything, he almost worked too hard this year to make it better."

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A chance to be on the team that ended the Cubs' championship drought was among the reasons Heyward declined offseason overtures from the Cardinals and Nationals to instead sign with Chicago. Four times he had been on a team that had qualified for the postseason. Four times that team fell short of reaching the NLCS.

That changed on Tuesday, when Heyward scored the go-ahead run in a 6-5 win over the Giants in the NL Division Series that set off what the Cubs hope will be the second of four champagne celebrations this fall.

"There is a lot of irony in it because the regular season didn't go exactly the way I wanted it to go," Heyward said. "But there were a lot of good things that happened for me personally just to help the team get to this point. Here I am with not the best regular season, but I'm going on to the NLCS for the first time in my career. It's something I don't take for granted."

Coming off the most complete offensive season of his career, Heyward opened this year as the team's two-hole hitter. He remained there for most of the first half before his continued offensive struggles prompted manager Joe Maddon to drop Heyward down in the order.

Heyward fit in the lineup's sixth spot in the NLDS and finished 1-for-12 against the Giants. Yet, Heyward sparked the team's three-run second inning in a 5-2 Game 2 victory, and he forced a rushed throw from shortstop that helped him reach base in the ninth inning of Game 4.

"Again, we get caught up on batting averages," Maddon said. "And, of course, there's more in the tank for him with that, with his offensive numbers. But everything else he's done this year has been superlative. And I really appreciate good baseball. I don't think it's any coincidence that he's played on a 100-win team the last couple years."

Mike Matheny, who managed Heyward in St. Louis last season, once described him as a player best appreciated when watched regularly. It was Matheny's way of pointing out how often Heyward had his fingerprints on a team's success, even if in more non-descript ways.

This year, Heyward held up his reputation as a superb defensive player and is likely weeks away from collecting his fourth NL Gold Glove Award. Among all NL outfielders, he ranked first with 18 Defensive Runs Saved and first with an Ultimate Zone Rating of 19.8.

Heyward has also established himself as an above-average baserunner, ranking above league average in number of times advancing from second to home on a single and first to home on a double.

"He's just an old-school, come-to-play-every-day type of player," Matheny said when the Cardinals visited Wrigley Field in late September. "I thought he had some of the intangibles -- that old-school thinking of how the game should look and how the clubhouse should operate. You could see that he was always thinking about this club and not himself."

After shying away from a return to St. Louis partially because he didn't want to be the centerpiece of an offense, Heyward has assimilated exceptionally well to his third team in as many years. At 27 years old, he's able to relate to the organization's young core while also bringing seven seasons of Major League experience to the bunch.

The effusive praise offered by Heyward's teammates is evidence of an impact.

"He's the best," said catcher , who was also teammates with Heyward in Atlanta (2010-12). "This guy is maybe one of the most professional guys I've ever been around. I think he brings a lot to this young group. I can't say enough about Jason Heyward. This guy's amazing."