Get all of Tom Verducci’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
The Cubs signed Jason Heyward to a $184 million contract last December even though the book on him is that he has had a hard time catching up to plus fastballs, especially in on his hands. So I was curious to see what Chicago would do with Heyward’s unique and ever-changing hitting mechanics.
Going back to 2010, his rookie year, Heyward has changed his setup at the plate every year. From a neutral stance with the hands high and the bat flat (2010), to an open stance ('11), to a slightly open stance with bent knees and pumping hands ('12), to a neutral stance with his hands lower ('13), to a closed stance with his hands away from his body and the bat upright ('14), to a slightly open stance with his arms tight to his body and the end to his odd habit of re-gripping his bat as the pitcher winds up ('15).
What would 2016 and a new team bring? Cubs hitting instructor John Mallee left Heyward to his own ways when the two of them first met during spring training. But as they gained trust in one another, Mallee gave Heyward another new look: a timing mechanism to get him to start earlier. It’s a slight toe tap that creates rhythm and timing to Heyward’s swing. The result? By getting started earlier, Heyward is no longer getting beat by plus fastballs on his hands.
It will be interesting to watch if Heyward begins to take advantage of old scouting reports and turns inside fastballs into more home runs. He has yet to hit a home run this season and is batting just .188/.291/.229 in his first 13 games. Oh, and that odd habit of re-gripping the bat? Yeah, it’s back.
• Noah Syndergaard, like Nolan Ryan, is a physical freak on the mound. Syndergaard did not begin to throw a slider in earnest until Sept. 12 last year. In a short time, however, it has become one of the best pitches in baseball. The Mets’ 23-year-old righthander, whose nickname is Thor, averages between 92–93 mph on his slider—a ridiculously hard velocity for a breaking pitch. No one else in baseball cracks 90 mph with their slider. In three starts this season, it has become Syndergaard's go-to strikeout pitch. Batters are hitting .087 against it with no extra-base hits and 13 strikeouts among the 23 at-bats ended on the slider. After he beat the Phillies on Monday night, he is now 2–0 with a 0.90 ERA and a majors-leading 29 strikeouts in three starts.
• Subscribe to get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox
• Now that Jim Leyland is on board as manager of Team USA for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, he and MLB officials are compiling a wish list of players. At the top of the list: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and Clayton Kershaw, all of whom have declined invitations in the past. The WBC is a big international event, but has lacked a bigger footprint in the U.S. because the best players don’t want to play for their country the way players from other nations do. Here’s a typical response I got when I asked one star if he planned to return to Team USA next year: “I don’t think so. I had the worst start to my career after playing in that. It’s too early in the year to get geared up for intense at-bats.”
• The Giants have dialed back the number and extremity of their shifts. The reason? “We’ve seen too many hitters adjust to it,” bench coach Ron Wotus said. San Francisco allows shortstop Brandon Crawford to improvise on any pre-arranged shifts based on what he sees from the pitcher and the hitter.