Better Late than Never for Red Hot Heyward

For over two years, he has been the $184 million problem for the Chicago Cubs in right-field.

The biggest mistake Theo Epstein has ever made was just one of the kinder insults reserved for Jason Heyward after he scuffled following that massive free agency contract.

His greatest moment as a Cubbie hadn’t came with a spectacular catch in the ivy vines at Wrigley in a crucial September showdown or with a massive home run in a decisive October playoff game.

Instead, it famously came in the weight room deep in the bowels of Progressive Field in Cleveland on a rain-soaked night in November 2016 as he issued the rallying, motivational cry to his teammates in Game 7 of the World Series that many credited with their 10th inning surge to take the title.

That’s all well and good and there’s no doubt that it was well worth it, but let’s face it, $184m is a big price to pay for a motivational speaker.

Now though? The Cubs finally have much more than that.

After over two years of struggles at the plate, continuous swing changes and off seasons spent desperately trying to turn things around, there have finally been consistent signs of encouragement for the 28-year-old.

After watching him struggle so badly since his big money free agency move to Wrigley Field, we are allowed to get a little carried away by his recent resurgence.

So allow me to do just that. With Bryce Harper‘s recent offensive struggles and the fact that he and Heyward have moved in opposite directions over the past month, the best right fielder in the National League is now the gold glover on Chicago’s north side.

Too far? Perhaps. But watching Heyward throughout 2016 and 2017 at the plate was truly difficult at times, yet his WAR of 1.0 this year is higher than it was for both those seasons.

His defensive skills, thankfully, were never in doubt during that time and were arguably what was keeping him in the side as Joe Maddon relied on others in his line-up to pick up the offensive slack.

There was genuine discussion among frustrated fans in the Windy City in the early weeks of this season about the Cubs cutting their losses on the former Atlanta Brave and using him as a late inning defensive replacement.

If you had told Cubs fans in early April that Heyward, who had almost become an offensive vacuum at the bottom of the line-up, would be batting in the two hole as a big threat to opposing pitchers come June, they would have laughed.

After struggling for so long, why was there any reason to believe things would change? But then came his DL stint in May following a concussion and since returning, he has been a new man.

It is better late than never and since then, Heyward, who has always been one of the team’s likeable players and never been afraid to front up even as he toiled, has been one of the Cubs’ most productive hitters.

Last week alone, he has mustered big hits when in 0-2 or 1-2 pitcher counts on multiple occasions, while also flashing his defensive cannon with a truly jaw-dropping throw to home from deep in right field against the Dodgers to nail Chris Taylor at the plate.

And this year already, he is posting his best numbers as a Cub in terms of his batting average, OBP, slugging, wRC, strikeouts and both his hard and soft contact rates.

Since returning from his DL stint on May 18, it has for all intents and purposes been like watching a new man at the plate for Chicago’s northsiders.

It was in the series against the Pirates at the end of May that he began to really show that he means business and since the middle game of that showdown, he has averaged .370, hit two home runs, eight doubles and driven in 11 runs.

In previous years, it was with trepidation and a sense of dread that you approached a Heyward at bat: expecting little and often getting that.

But now? There is a genuine sense of excitement and expectation when the multiple Gold Glover stares down opposing pitchers. You aren’t hoping he will deliver: you expect it, and with good reason given his performances.

The most incredible thing about his resurgence, though, is the situations and the men he is getting these hits against.

High heat used to be a big problem for Heyward but according to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, his average against 95 MPH+ fastballs this season is the best in MLB, along with Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor.

This season, no left handed bat had managed to claim a hit against the lights-out leftie killer that is Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader. Until Jason Heyward.

This season, Cardinals flamethrower Jordan Hicks has taken the mantle of baseball’s fastest pitcher away from Aroldis Chapman and barely anyone had success against him, while nobody had managed a home run. Until Jason Heyward.

But best of all was the moment in early June which brought about one of the loudest roars and most frenzied home run reactions at Wrigley Field since Miguel Montero‘s stunning NLCS grand slam in 2016.

If Heyward does keep up his run of form and maintain it for a consistent period of time to develop into the kind of player the Cubs thought they had signed, they will look to that game against the Philadelphia Phillies as being the turning point for his career in Chicago.

It was the kind of scenario in which Cubs fans had grown accustomed to being let down by the affable southpaw in the past, with the side down 5-3 to the Phillies in the bottom of the ninth, with the bases loaded and a 2-2 count to the right-fielder.

Bullpen arm Adam Morgan had not given up a home run on a fastball in 2018 so the Phillies would have been justifiably confident about closing it out.

And then ‘J-Hey’ connected to scorch a grand slam 415 feet into the bleachers.

He has kept up his rich vein of form since then too. One of baseball’s best defensive gloves now has a blistering bat to go with it.

Can he keep it going? Well, it is all in his own hands. No, literally.

“It is literally all about using my hands now and keeping it simple,” he said of his revival.

Bryce Harper’s name has long been linked, whether lazily or not, to the Cubs in free agency (finances aside for a moment) thanks to his friendship with fellow Vegas native Kris Bryant and the fact that he named his dog Wrigley.

But based on what we’ve seen in 2018 so far… would the Cubs really take him over this version of Heyward? Certainly not.

He can catch. He can hit. Oh, and the man gives a good speech.

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