Jason Heyward's unorthodox swing is a big reason for his awful season in Chicago, while Clayton Kershaw's dominant year is earning him Hall of Famer comparisons.
It took Joe Maddon half a year, but the Chicago manager finally moved rightfielder Jason Heyward out of the second spot in the batting order on July 4. The Cubs spent $184 million on a free agent with such an unorthodox swing that, as one manager told me at the winter meetings, “With that swing, there is a possibility that you sign him to that contract and he just doesn’t hit.” Said another, “That swing scares me. I think you can tie him up, and I don’t see where the power is going to come from, even with his size.”
The worst-case scenario is playing out for the Cubs. Heyward is hitting .234 with four home runs, none in his past 87 at-bats. In spring training, Chicago decided mostly to leave Heyward alone when it came to his unusual swing. Hitting coaches John Mallee and Eric Hinkse gave him a slight toe tap as a trigger mechanism to get him started earlier, but left the same awkward swing.
Heyward’s problem is that over the years he has become a “dip-and-dive” hitter. He not only sinks deeply into his legs and drops his head, but he also leans out toward then plate as he does so. It takes longer for him to bring the bat around, and he locks himself up with a closed front side. He simply doesn’t leave room or time to get the barrel out in front to hit inside pitches with any velocity, and the league knows it.
Heyward gets pitched to like an opposing pitcher or a slap hitter. Through Monday, no hitter in baseball had seen more fastballs than Heyward (66%). Among those heaters, 128 of them were clocked at 95 mph or greater. Against those 128 pitches with elite velocity—85 of which have been strikes—Heyward had only seven hits.
Now let’s examine Heyward’s struggles more deeply by way of hitting metrics. First, here’s why pitchers can attack him without much fear. These are the outfielders who have qualified for the batting title yet have the worst OPS marks in the majors this season.
1. Billy Burns, Athletics: .576
2. Nori Aoki, Mariners: .636
3. Jason Heyward, Cubs: .649
4. Justin Upton, Tigers: .652
The most interesting aspect of pitching to Heyward is that teams can get him out the same way over and over: pitching him inside to exploit his swing mechanics. Here’s a look at how vulnerable Heyward has become to inside pitches relative to his rookie season, which may have been his best offensive season and when he did not have the extreme “dip and dive” approach he has now. Here's how he had done against inside pitches, through Monday:
Heyward knows he’s getting pounded inside, and infield defenses overshift against him because they know their pitchers are pounding him inside. The result is that Heyward tries to cheat to get his barrel out in front, resulting in more and more ground-ball outs to the right side. Take a look at his trend in that area the past four seasons:
2016: 72 (prorated)
And by cheating to protect against inside velocity, not only is Heyward producing a bevy of pull-side rollovers, but he is also taking his opposite-field hitting almost completely out of play:
If you think Heyward simply has been hitting in bad luck and is due for a turnaround, StatCast metrics suggest otherwise. He simply is not hitting the baseball nearly as hard as he did last year. This table looks at his average exit velocity as well as the number of at-bats that ended with an exit velocity of 100 mph or higher:
What can the Cubs do? Maddon finally made the move the lineup tinkerer had been reluctant to make, dropping Heyward to the back half of the lineup. In the past three games, Heyward has batted sixth each time, going a combined 3 for 10 with three walks and no strikeouts. As for that swing, no team is going to suggest a complex overhaul during the season. The Cubs plan to wait until after the season to do just that with Heyward. In the meantime, they have encouraged him to back off the plate farther.
Kershaw vs. Maddux
Here is why Clayton Kershaw may be on the greatest pitching run of all time—at least since the live ball era began in 1920.
First, let’s define a “run” of great pitching:
1. A run is a streak. That means no off years.
2. Reliability matters: You have to pitch at least enough to qualify for the ERA title, which means at least one inning per team game.
3. You must be at least 50% better than league average year after year after year, without exception.
Assuming Kershaw, who is on the disabled list with a lower back injury, returns to the Dodgers this year to pitch at least 41 more innings (likely) and that his adjusted ERA finishes at no worse than 150 (very likely, considering it is a staggering 219 at the moment), he will join a fraternity with only one other member. He will become only the second Live Ball era pitcher with a run of six qualified seasons with an ERA+ of at least 150. The other is Greg Maddux (1994–98).
(A brief word on ERA+: It’s a handy tool to even the field for players across different eras because it adjusts for the pitcher’s ballpark and for the league-wide ERA. Players with an ERA+ of 150 or better are at least 50% better than their league average.)
Every other great pitching run did not have six years of such interrupted greatness. Sandy Koufax’s stretch from 1961 to '66 began with adjusted ERAs of 122 and 143. Lefty Grove topped the 150 mark 10 times in 14 years from 1926 to '39, but he never had a run of six straight years north of 150 (he hurt his arm in '34 and posted a 6.50 ERA in an abbreviated season). Roger Clemens averaged a 153 ERA+ from 1986 to '94, but a slump in '93 left him with a 104 ERA+ that season. Randy Johnson’s runs were interrupted by serious injuries in 1996 (back) and 2003 (knee). Pedro Martinez injured his rotator cuff in 2001, throwing only 116 2/3 innings.
So we are left only with Maddux and, assuming his health improves, Kershaw. Which uninterrupted run was better? Take your pick.
|Stats||Maddux (1993–98)||Kershaw (2011–16)|
Maddux has more wins, fewer walks and a better ERA+. Kershaw beats Maddux in winning percentage, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk rate and fielding independent pitching.
If you judge a pitcher against his own era, and define a run as greatness uninterrupted, when Kershaw returns, he has a chance to complete what may be the best six-year run in the Live Ball era.
And by the way, still my favorite stat on Kershaw: Since his debut season of 2008, he has lowered his career ERA every year without exception—eight straight years of improving upon greatness. Now that’s a special run.