If you look at Google results for “Jason Heyward swing,” you will find articles spanning for at least five years, documenting the never ending chase to fix Jason Heyward and tap into his dormant power, only seen briefly during the 2012 season. Tom Ley presents a different position that maybe Jason Heyward was just never a good hitter, which I disagree with. Lo and behold in 2023, Jack Harris writes that the Dodgers have once again re-worked his swing and the results are showing. You can see his 2023 stance first and then his 2021/2022 stance below:
The videos shows 4 seam fastballs from right handed pitchers, which will be an important detail in a few paragraphs. He’s more closed off in 2023 and his bat is more upright, even sort of pointed at the pitcher. The swing itself looks flatter in 2023 compared to his time with the Cubs. Was it always his swing? Maybe, but there is one simple thing that the Dodgers have done this season, which is deploy Heyward as a platoon outfield bat. Because of this, I think that Heyward will (and should) have several teams looking to sign him come December.
Heyward is a lefty, so he’s the long side of any outfield platoon (there are generally more right handed pitchers than left handed ones) and this year he is crushing right handers with a 133 wRC+ and a .361 wOBA and he’s hit 15 homeruns in a season for the first time since 2019 and only the fourth time in his 13 years in the majors. Heyward is still capable of drawing a walk, sitting at 9.9% for his walk percentage that is just slightly above league average.
It’s not the classic power bat you’d expect in right field, but that’s never been his profile. Defense has always been his calling card and even at 33, Heyward is still providing plus defense in rightfield and a little below league average in centerfield, enough step in when you’re in a pinch. All of DRS (+6), UZR/150 (+3.1) and OAA (+6) agree that Heyward is still an above average defender. There is risk here, I will admit. He will play most of the next year at 34 years old and the defense could fall off the cliff, not to mention that Baseball Prospectus’ DRP ranks Heyward at -3.6 between his time in right field and center field. It’s an outlier compared to other metrics and merits watching going forward.
Going back to his offense, Statcast isn’t a huge believer in Heyward’s 2023 offense. His xwOBA is .325, 41 points lower than his actual wOBA. His average exit velocity is middling at 87.9 mph though max exit velocity is solid at 112.7 mph. So, what could Statcast be missing? Overall, Heyward has increased both his flyball rate to 43.9% and his groundball rate has lowered to 41.1%. Hitting the ball in the air is good but Heyward’s flyballs specifically have changed in two ways:
Heyward’s hitting his flyballs harder and he’s also started pulling them. It’s unsurprising then that all 15 of Heyward’s homeruns are categorized as flyballs and 10 of those are pulled. A spray angle of 0 indicates to dead center, whereas negative would indicate more pull side flyballs. It reminded me of what was happening with Spencer Torkelson, as Eno Sarris notes that straightaway barrels have lower slugging percentage than pull and oppo slugging percentage. Heyward doesn’t have Torkelson’s problem but the change in spray angle definitely isn’t hurting him. Heyward’s average exit velocity may not be anything special but the gains to his flyball exit velocity and spray angle can lead to this kind of performance, even if Statcast doesn’t believe in it.
I think that these batted ball changes are due to Heyward hitting fastballs better than he ever has. He’s also swinging at pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing 29.2%) less than league average while making contact with pitches in the strike zone (89.9% Z-Contact) more than league average. He’s making good swing decisions and maximizing contact on fastballs when he sees them.
Heyward has cut his whiffs in half against fastballs and made substantial games in wOBA and slugging percentage. Statcast still doesn’t seem to buy it’s his true performance, but even if Heyward only hit the Statcast benchmarks, he would still be a considerably better player than he was in 2021 and 2022.
The case for Heyward is a very specific one. He should primarily spend time in right field, and he should only be facing right handed pitchers. With that being said, Heyward might actually be one of the better corner outfield options hitting free agency. Among that list, he ranks second in wOBA, wRC+, fWAR. He’s also one of the most balanced options on that list, ranking in the top 10 of both offensive runs and defensive runs categories. Only Max Kepler provides a similar profile and he may not hit free agency with the Twins possessing a $10 million club option. The other players available are either great contributors on defense or offense only.
I want to be clear that I’m not pining for a team to sign Heyward to a five year contract. Anything more than two years is risky in my eyes. I’d target a one year deal with some type of option, either team or mutual ideally. If you want to say the outfield options fall off after Cody Bellinger, that makes sense but if you’re looking for a corner outfielder who can hit right handers, then you should take a look at Jason Heyward.