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.”

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.