By the Time I Get to Arizona: Jason Heyward Working to Become Hitter Cubs Thought They Were Getting

Rather than anything he did on the field, the lasting impression of Jason Heyward‘s contribution to the Cubs’ title will be the rousing speech he delivered during the Game 7 rain delay. Yet even in the wake of his inspiring exhortation, he went out and followed RBI hits by Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero with one of the most awkward at-bats anyone’s ever seen. The ultimate result easily outweighed the process in the case of last offseason’s $184 million acquisition, but that didn’t stop many from questioning whether the Cubs could have done better.

What if I told you the Cubs could add a right fielder capable of playing solid defense while hitting .250/.338/.413 (.771 OPS) with 15 home runs, 50 RBI, a wRC+ of maybe 110, and a dozen or so stolen bases? Is that something you’d be interested in? It’d sure be a nice upgrade over Heyward, who hit only .230/.306/.325 (.631 OPS) with 7 home runs, 49 RBI, a wRC+ of 72, and 11 steals.

Now what if I told you that adding such a player would cost the Cubs nothing in terms of either salary or a roster spot because he’s already on the team? I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now, but I’m talking about Jason Heyward. The first set of numbers I listed there represents production somewhat below his career averages, production he hopes a winter in Mesa will help him reproduce.

I’m not sure how many guys in Heyward’s position would be willing to move near their team’s training facilities for the winter in order to work with an assistant hitting coach to overhaul their swing technique, but I’m guessing it’s a short list. While John Mallee will be making frequent trips to Mesa as well, the day-to-day operations fall to Eric Hinske, who will help Heyward to make “some critical changes.”

The goal isn’t so much about fixing his swing, per se, as it is to kind of reverse engineer it to get Heyward back to where he was with Atlanta and St. Louis. Sounds simple enough, but we’re talking about swing mechanics that have been notoriously fluid over the course of the last six years. In 2016 alone, we saw Heyward implement a toe-tap timing mechanism that he later did away with in order to be quicker to the ball. Clearly, neither technique produced more than temporary success. Definitely a moving target they’re trying to hit.

A dip-and-dive swing isn’t ideal under any circumstances, let alone when you’re talking about a man of Heyward’s size. You can imagine how even the slightest tweaks or imbalances could throw the whole deal off-kilter and cause a serious diminution in results. And in this case, I believe pressing and getting twisted up mentally under the pressure of that monster contract may have manifested physically and dug a hole too deep to dig out of. Not during the season, anyway.

I may put more stock in the mental side of the game than I should, so it’s possible I’m too bullish on the impact the World Series win and a couple months off will have on clearing Heyward’s head. Still, I can’t help but think that it’s not just the hitting drills that will do wonders for his swing. And if he can just get back within kissing distance of his career line, man, it’ll be as though the Cubs added a big-money free agent all over again.

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