“No,” a National League scout said without hesitation when asked if Jason Heyward’s swing looked any different in spring training.
“Uncomfortable,” an American League scout said without trying to reference Cubs manager Joe Maddon and his T-shirt collection.
But neither scout shared that with any sense of glee, emphasizing how Heyward is a great dude with a strong reputation throughout the industry. One scout even said he hopes Heyward figures it out – just not against his team.
All along, Heyward never viewed his swing overhaul as an “aha moment” or a one-time fix. He understands how hard this game is, enjoys working at his craft and tries to mentally hit the reset button before every pitch. However he performed in April, he wouldn’t get too high or too low or pretend like he had all the answers. Either way, it would still be a never-ending process of adjustments.
That’s why Heyward commands so much respect inside the clubhouse, how the Cubs justified a $184 million investment and expected a bounce back in Year 2. Just ask the reigning NL MVP.
“He’s such an idol to me,” Kris Bryant said. “I just look up to him. He carries himself in such a professional way, good or bad, and that’s something that we all can learn from.
“He shows up. He shows up ready to play, good or bad. Everybody saw what he went through last year. Yeah, you can look at the scoreboard and see it. But in here, you would have never known that he was struggling. It’s unbelievable.”
At the May 1 checkpoint, Heyward is batting .279 – or 49 points higher than last season’s finish – and has hit safely in 20 of 23 games. He already has three home runs after hitting his third homer on June 6 last year. His 16 RBI are more than every other Cub except for Anthony Rizzo.
“Yeah, he did all the work in the offseason and he put in so much time,” Bryant said. “But I think when we struggle as hitters, it’s more of a mental thing and what we’re thinking up there and what we’re swinging at.
“You see early on he’s attacking early in the count. I feel like last year he was probably put in some tough situations, too, with guys swinging early in the count and him feeling like he had to take more pitches. But this year, if he’s getting that pitch right there, first pitch he’s going to hit it hard.”
Heyward never wanted to live off his rain-delay speech during Game 7 of the World Series or be remembered as a very expensive motivational speaker. After all the focus on how quickly he moved to Arizona and ramped up his offseason program – and the Cactus League updates – the Cubs might have a different piece to a lineup that’s supposed to score 800-plus runs again.
“Now it’s just go compete,” Heyward said. “I’m not thinking too much about (my swing). Just take it one day at a time. Just be aware of what I got going on.
“Strive for perfection. You know it’s not going to be perfect. You got to give pitchers credit. They throw good pitches. The game’s going to be the game.
“Just keep it really simple and go up there relaxed and take the thinking out of it.”
Even as one of the least productive hitters in the majors last season (.631 OPS), Heyward still changed the team’s identity with his Gold Glove defense, patient approach and heads-up, aggressive nature on the bases.
“I see Jason as a big brother,” Albert Almora Jr. said. “He’s one of our leaders. He’s someone you look (up to), because it doesn’t matter if you have a good game or a bad game, he’s still going to be the same professional, same guy in the dugout cheering on his teammates, and that’s something you really want to pattern yourself after.
“You could put him in the Derek Jeter conversation in (terms of) that’s the type of guy you want on your team, on and off the field.”
For the Cubs, this is almost like having a point guard or a defensive coordinator in the outfield, a four-time Gold Glove winner who can also shift over to center, in a part of the game that should never go into a slump.
“I’m always looking at him,” Almora said. “One thing I really key on is that you’re always moving out there, depending on how the swings are going, how the pitcher’s throwing, how the situation and the count is progressing. You always can do something to position yourself better.
“I’m kind of guessing where I’m going to go and then he’s always giving me the thumbs-up when I’m moving the right way.”
Not quite 100 plate appearances would be too early to make a sweeping conclusion about Heyward in 2017. But whatever dragged him down offensively last season – some combination of bad luck, bad timing, bad habits, a high-maintenance swing, the weight of the biggest contract in franchise history – the Cubs are so far optimistic about the early returns.
“It’s physical,” Maddon said, “because he’s always been that guy. He’s great in the clubhouse. He’s always there in the present tense. He plays hard, all that stuff. But if you just took a snapshot standing in the box last year and this year – just where he’s starting from – it’s incredibly different. It’s where he’s starting the bat. That’s it.”