Cubs see Jason Heyward's 'baseball luck' evening out

Cubs see Jason Heyward's 'baseball luck' evening out

Good luck trying to make sense of Jason Heyward's offensive struggles this season.

Heyward is a career .266 hitter with a .777 OPS, yet he sits at .236 and .620, repectively, in those marks entering play Tuesday.

Heyward is riding a quiet seven-game hitting streak in which he's raised his season average 34 points.

He was 5-for-11 against the Pittsburgh Pirates over the weekend, but he's not ready to tempt the baseball gods just yet and say his "baseball luck" is returning to normal levels.

"I'm not gonna say it's evened out yet," Heyward laughed. "But it's good to contribute."

Heyward credited his timing with improved production on the field, which has helped his hits find holes.

He had not been so lucky the first six weeks or so of the season when hard-hit ball after hard-hit ball found defenders' gloves.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon believes Heyward's baseball luck is returning. 

"It's got to," Maddon said. "He's been maligned about not hitting high enough, but that one week we had in St. Louis and Cincinnati, he must've had eight line drives - I mean really well-struck line drives - caught.

"It's gonna come back to him. It's gonna shift back in his favor because he doesn't cave. He doesn't give in. He's not lost confidence. He understands."

Heyward's bad luck this season passes the eye test. For those who have watched the Cubs closely this season, it's easy to understand what Maddon is saying and believe Heyward's luck is turning simply because it has to.

Yet the advanced stats don't necessarily tell the same story.

Typically, when a player is struggling with bad baseball luck as a hitter, their batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is uncharacteristically low. Yet Heyward's .303 mark on the season is only six points off his career mark (.309) and only 26 points off his 2015 BABIP, when he posted a .293 average on the season.

Heyward's strikeout percentage (18.8 percent) is higher than it had been from 2013-15, but still only slightly above his career norm (18.5 percent).

His walk percentage is way up (13.4 percent compared to 9.2 percent last year and 10.6 percent in his career), which should point to better strike zone judgement that typically correlates with a high batting average.

Heyward is also hitting the ball on the ground a lot less than he did last season (46.5 percent in 2016 compared to 57.2 percent) and hitting more line drives (26.3 percent, way above his 18.7 percent career line drive percentage), which should point to a higher batting average.

But here's where things get even more strange: Despite a huge increase in line drives, Heyward's hard-hit percentage is at a career-low 20 percent while his soft-hit percentage is at the highest its been since his second year in the big leagues (2011).

Even a look at more mainstream numbers highlights a worrisome start to the season for Heyward. His slugging percentage is a woeful .276, which is the second-lowest mark in the National League, ahead of only Erick Aybar (who has a .213 SLG).

So what does all this mean?

You can group a bunch of those statistics together and make a justified claim that Heyward has simply been unlucky this year.

You can also grab a few numbers and make a case that Heyward has regressed in his age-26 season.

Regardless of reasoning — Is the $184-million contract weighing on him? Is his wrist injury sapping some power? Has he just been unlucky? — the Cubs are still pretty happy with what production they've gotten from Heyward to date.

Thanks to his high walk rate, Heyward has a .345 on-base percentage and is on pace to score 86 runs while setting the table for Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist.

Maddon has insisted on keeping Heyward in the two-hole to date and doesn't see any reason to move him down. 

Plus, if Heyward is not hitting the ball with much authority, moving him down behind the heart of the order won't help the Cubs at all.

"His on-base percentage is over 100 points higher than his average hitting," Maddon said. "That is a great guy to have in the two-hole. The rest of the stuff - the power, the gappers - all that stuff's gonna come.

"But I like the way he's starting to get on time. He's starting to show up on time and that's when it's gonna get good for him."

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season


Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.