I have long had what one might call a man crush on Jason Heyward. Now, the crush is not quite to Zorilla levels for me, but it’s close. For now, I will not go into much detail about how excited I am that both he and Heyward will be donning Cubbie blue in the 2016 season; that is for another time and place. Right now, this is all about my Heyward love affair. I am sure to not be alone in this type of fantasy crush (saving every Tiger Beat cover Heyward adorns). What’s not to love? I mean the dude is a five tool guy, right? Heyward gets on base, has some power, some speed, is very good defensively (although that doesn’t provide us much for his fantasy value) and has a winning smile! That’s the fifth tool, right?
Anyways, Heyward came into the league with plenty of hype, and homering in his first major league at bat did nothing to quell said hype. The rest of Heyward’s rookie season was quite good as well; so the sky was the limit, considering Heyward was like eleven years old or something when he had his first major league at bat. But the predicted power numbers were not really to follow – Heyward has has not topped 14 dingers in any season since 2012. The potential is certainly there, right? I mean he has come close to 30 dingers in a season. So, is 30 homers a possibility? Quite possibly, but maybe as an outlier, like when Wade Boggs magically hit 24 in 1987 despite only getting to double digits one other time in his career. But as far as Heyward being a consistent 30 homer threat? Maybe not.
Heyward’s ISO and hard hit percentages are not what they once were, but the numbers in those categories were up a tick in 2015. It might be easy to predict a power surge from Heyward in 2016, since he now gets to play home games in the hitter’s haven that is Wrigley Field. After all, balls flew out of Wrigley more than they did in all but two other parks last season. That right there should be worth another five or so dingers for Heyward, right? Well, in 9 games at Wrigley in 2015, Heyward had 39 plate appearances and – are you ready – zero, yes zero, home runs. Now, this is a small sample size, but no homers and an OPS of .632 is by no means stellar. Of course these are not numbers we can look at in a vacuum. Heyward was hitting in Wrigley against Cubs pitchers; a staff that finished first and third in WHIP and ERA respectively. The fact of the matter is, Heyward has manged to have very good value, despite not being a huge power threat.
As primarily a leadoff hitter for the Redbirds, Heyward was decent at getting on base in front of a lineup that could produce some runs. Sure, many people like to stick with their antiquated, tried and true batting average leagues, but OBP leagues are where it’s at; that is where Heyward can really shine. Of course Heyward’s rise in on-base percentage in each of the last four years is tied to an increase in batting average more than it is to drawing walks, but increase is increase, right? To be fair, the walk rate is still fairly consistent and the rise in batting average could be attributed a bit to Heyward making more contact (up to 84.2% in 2015). Heyward also pulled the fewest percentage of balls in his major league career in 2015. In fact it appears that in 2015, Heyward had the most balanced distribution of batted balls he has ever had in the bigs.
While the main long ball power is to the pull field, Heyward’s highest line drive rates came when the ball went to left field; his OPS on balls hit to left was .908 in 2015. These numbers should do enough to “keep the defense honest” as they say. Alright so, three years of improved contact, new hitter friendly home park; everything is just peachy keen now, right? Well, there is something more we should address. Worm burners. Heyward hit a far higher percentage of grounders in 2015 than he has at any other point in his career – 57% to be exact, which is not something those investing in him really wants to hear. Now, I for one am not ready to panic just yet, though. I am not saying that a groundball rate close to 60% is not at all concerning as it will surely give one pause, but let’s not go committing hari kari, here. Remain calm, we’ll get through this…together.
Ideally we want more of those batted balls to be off the ground, but the fact Heyward is making more contact and slightly better than average hard hit contact is promising. I don’t have cross referencing data to see what percentage of grounders were hard hit (that would be really helpful), but law of averages would tend to make me think that on the ground or not, you keep making contact and a some of those buggers will turn into hits, right? With the high contact numbers, Heyward is probably producing a lot of grounders when he is fighting off pitches or protecting the plate, which will more often than not result in some weaker contact. About two-thirds of Heyward’s batted balls with two strikes were on the ground in 2015, but in 2014 that percentage was more in the low to mid-forties. This may be purely speculative, but I know Heyward has a new park to call home as well as a new hitting coach who plans on figuring out why Heyward hit so many balls on the ground in 2015, as well as what can be done to fix it for next season. But, even with that, let’s remember Heyward was still a very productive fantasy asset in 2015.
Part of that production comes from his speed. Heyward stole 23 bases last year and has 20 or more stolen bases in three of the past four seasons. His speed score for the past two seasons is 5.5 – good enough to rank him in the top 25. His early success on steals led to some questions about his future running ability, but with 43 steals in 50 attempts (86% success rate) over the past two years – I think we can put those doubts to bed. I mentioned earlier that part of Heyward’s increase in OBP was due to increased contact, but the speed was also a factor. With so many ground balls and a soft hit rate that ranks in the top 5 for the past two seasons, a hitter better be able to leg out those throws to first base. That’s exactly what Heyward has done.
Given Heyward’s improved contact and speed, it would only make sense to have him leading off for the Cubs. The Cardinals had him all over the lineup last year, but given the power of some of that young talent in Chicago I can’t see him batting third or fourth this year. Maddon has lots of toys at his disposal in 2016, so no telling where Heyward will bats, but with a stacked lineup around him and a hitter friendly home park you have to like Heyward’s fantasy value for 2016 regardless of where he hits.
Between the improvements at the plate, new enviroment, new hitting coach, etcetera etcetera, I feel like Heyward has a 20-20 season coming. May not necessarily be consistent 20-20 seasons year-to-year,but my gut feeling is 2016 will be a big year for the Jay-Hey Kid. While the Cubs were only middle of the road in scoring runs last year, they should score more than their fair share of them in 2016 given those youngster now have a little more experience under the belts. Heyward has been just shy of 80 runs the past few seasons, but if put in the leadoff position hitting in front of the likes of Bryant and Rizzo he could plate and extra 10 runs – possibly a few more. Steamer is projecting 90 runs in 2016, while ESPN projects 99. I lean a bit more towards the ESPN number myself, thinking he has an outside shot at triple digits in the run column. Only 13 players scored 99 or more runs in 2015 and one of them was none other than Dexter Fowler, the Cubs leadoff hitter last season.
We know Heyward is decent at getting on base and can run the bases well; throw in Joe Maddon at the helm and you have a recipe for fantasy goodness. With the bright young lineup around him along with a fun new ballpark and manager, I think Heyward is on the cusp of being a top 30 fantasy player in 2016. A lot of current data points to Heyward being drafted between the 6th and 7th round (in the 60s overall), which I think will be a huge value. I like Heyward’s shot at giving you third round production this season, and would personally reach a bit for him. Somewhere in the 5th round sounds about right to me, and from there just send me a thank you note when you collect your end of year winnings (and maybe a tip for me if you’re feeling magnanimous).
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