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Chicago Cubs

Cubs' Jason Heyward confident he can return to form

Joe Lewnard –
Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward smiles during spring training batting practice at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona.
Joe Lewnard – Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward smiles during spring training batting practice at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona.

The Cubs didn’t sign Jason Heyward solely because of his Gold Glove pedigree in right field.

Nor did they sign him for his oratorical skills.

Those two things certainly helped the Cubs last year, but the team gave Heyward an eight-year, $184 million contract so he could produce with his bat.

That didn’t happen last season, as Heyward slumped to a batting line of .230/.306/.325 for an OPS of .631 and an OPS-plus of only 70. He hit seven homers and drove in 49.

That led to a winter of tearing things down and building them back up as Heyward worked with hitting coach John Mallee and assistant Eric Hinske.

Heyward’s swing appears to be more fluid, but the early results from the Cactus League show that it’s a work in progress. Through Tuesday’s action in Arizona, Heyward was 4 for 29 (.138) with a homer and six RBIs.

Heyward has dealt with all the media inquiries with his usual grace. Whether he’s going well or going poorly, he’ll often wait for reporters so they can ask him questions.

“You don’t have to admit anything,” he said. “It is what it is. It’s right there. Baseball is a game that’s going to humble you every day. You’re going to fail more times than you’re going to succeed.

“It’s all about how you handle that as an individual and as a group. We handled that the best out of anyone last year as a team, and that’s why we were able to win the World Series. I feel that’s the name of the game. Whoever wins the World Series handles the failures the best.”

The Cubs and Heyward are trying to unlock the secrets that led to a good year in 2012 with the Braves. That year he went .269/.335/.479 with 27 homers and 82 RBIs.
So a track record is there.

“Yeah, because there was no thinking about where your hands were at,” he said. “I do feel like that, since that season, there were some differences in lineup stuff for me, like starting in 2013 hitting leadoff more. It’s not an excuse. It’s just different things that are thrown into your head that you start to think about more than just going up there and doing anything.

“The bottom line is what makes it easier is that I’ve done it before the right way. There are plenty of times where I’ve done it before and I felt myself do it the right way. I would say out of seven years, two bad years out of those. So there’s five good seasons. There’s a lot of good baseball in there.”

The statistical site FanGraphs finds room for optimism, noting that many of Heyward’s “peripheral” numbers weren’t far out of whack from his career norms last year. The one trouble spot was a 27 percent “soft” contact rate, which contributed to a .266 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

“Given that many of his peripheral numbers remained the same or similar, including his swing and contact rates, it’s difficult to call this a new norm for Heyward,” a FanGraphs analysis states. “It’s more likely the result of a mechanical flaw that he’s spent the winter correcting, and we should see harder contact and, subsequently, a more frequent on-base presence from Jason Heyward. For now, though, he’s not nearly the surefire pick that he’s been in years past, but he could very easily return to prominence in 2017.”

The Cubs gladly will take Heyward’s strong defense, accurate throwing, smart baserunning and overall team leadership ability.

His rain-delay pep talk before the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series gets a lot of credit for the Cubs regrouping after blowing a lead and then going on to win. Could they have done it without the talk?

“I think so,” he said. “I don’t know, but I think so. I just never thought about it like that when it happened. It was just a moment where you feel like you need to say what you need to say. I’d have been [ticked] off at myself, win or loss, if I didn’t say it at the time.”

 Follow Bruce Miles on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.

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