Jason Heyward living up to Gold Glove reputation for new-look Cubs defense

Jason Heyward living up to Gold Glove reputation for new-look Cubs defense

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.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans


Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: