Joe Maddon was asked if he’s ever seen an outfielder impact the game defensively the way Jason Heyward does on a nightly basis.
“Not since Roberto,” Maddon said. “Just kidding, I didn’t see Mr. Clemente play (that often). They didn’t have TV back then. It was black and white.”
The Cubs are now watching Heyward up close and in high definition and already notice the difference, how line drives become outs in right field, runners don’t want to challenge his left arm and highlight-reel plays look routine.
Wilson Sporting Goods gave Heyward a defensive player of the year award before Thursday night’s 8-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field, recognizing a 2015 season where he finished with 22 Defensive Runs Saved, a 6.5 WAR rating, a .990 fielding percentage and his third Gold Glove.
“You just see some of the balls that are hit to right field that seem like doubles,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He takes those away. He’s basically a centerfielder in right field.”
As much as the offense has been a huge focus during this 8-1 start, Heyward is part of a larger offseason story where the Cubs tried to change their defensive identity, projecting a full year of Addison Russell – and not Starlin Castro – at shortstop, signing steady All-Star Ben Zobrist to play second base and holding onto Javier Baez as their super-utility guy.
The Cubs began the day leading the majors with a .994 fielding percentage – they ranked 25th in that category last season – and now have only two errors through nine games. Maddon – who says he comes from The Land of Run Prevention after managing a small-market Tampa Bay Rays team that couldn’t afford the big free agents – believes defense wins championships.
Heyward still remains a fascinating case study, getting paid like a middle-of-the-order hitter with only one 20-homer season on his resume after turning down offers believed to be in the $200-million range from the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals.
Defensive performance can be hard to quantify because the existing metrics are sort of unreliable – and the Cubs truly valued Heyward for his age-26 upside and all those prime years ahead – but his Gold Glove pedigree certainly factored into the decision to give him the biggest contract in franchise history at eight years and $184 million guaranteed.
That’s the price for an excellent defender – as well as a patient, grinding approach to at-bats, a hard-charging style while running the bases and a reputation for being a good dude.
“He’s a technician,” Maddon said, rewinding Heyward robbing Scott Schebler during Wednesday’s 9-2 win over the Reds. “How he broke to the ball, how low he stayed and how his dive was just perfectly timed – he knew he was going to catch it.
“From the moment he broke, he knew he was going to catch that ball. Some of that can be taught technically, but his instinct for the ball, his ability to move quickly or read the swing of the bat – all that (matters).”
The Heyward Effect is also an investment in the team’s pitching infrastructure, reducing stressful innings, getting in runners’ heads and making opponents more conservative and station-to-station.
“A lot of times guys that throw out a lot of runners are (doing it) because they don’t throw well,” Maddon said. “The guys that really throw well – or the guys that charge the ball properly – get less opportunity because that’s talked about in the pre-series meeting: ‘Listen, this guy’s going to come after it hard. He throws really well. Be careful.’ That’s all a guy’s got to hear in a meeting and then he’s going to be like ultra-careful.”