Jason Heyward had long been a productive, well-rounded fantasy baseball outfield option, and he was set to join an upstart team setup to be an offensive machine. The Cubs’ massive free agent acquisition seemed like a match made in heaven for fantasy baseball players last year. Instead, it was a complete nightmare. In 2016, Heyward had a ranking in the first four-to-eight rounds, mostly based around promises of Heyward’s traditional line combined with that Cubs offense.
Instead, he cratered, posting a .230 average with seven homers, 61 runs, 49 RBI and 11 stolen bases. He was downright terrible and ended the year on the waiver wire in most fantasy baseball leagues. This year, however, he is due for a bounce back, and at his current ADP, he is a high-upside fantasy draft pick.
Heyward’s ADP is 293, around guys like Jorge Alfaro and Domingo Santana. This burying of Heyward is more emotional than anything else and is based on how badly people were burned by Heyward. This is also the effect of him being very publicly terrible. However, his underlying statistics from 2016 (and some publicized changes he’s made) make for a much rosier outlook in 2017.
First, much of Heyward’s plate discipline statistics were nearly identical in 2016 compared to his career average. His walk rate was just 1% lower than his amazing 2012 campaign, and his strikeout rate was about 7.5% lower. His line drive, ground ball and fly ball split was nearly identical to his 2012 campaign.
The issue in 2016 was his soft contact rate, which ballooned up to 27% and dragged his BABIP down with him. Now, in a great post on Fangraphs by Eno Sarris, Heyward is working to tweak his swing to make his contact better, which should lead to a higher BABIP, and a higher average, and more production.
Currently, Heyward is slotted as the #6 hitter in the Cubs’ lineup, between Addison Russell and Wilson Contreras. This is unlikely to change unless Zobrist scuffles his way out of the #4 slot, moving Bryant there, Heyward to #2, and Zobrist to #6. This preserves the lefty-righty alternation that Maddon has in his lineup.[Kenny2]
Heyward had a dismal 2016 campaign, but it was not the first time in his career he had one. His 2011 campaign was the worst of his career before last year, and he followed it up with his career-best 2012 campaign. Heyward is a smart guy and a hard worker, by all accounts, and he has bounced back from a year like this before. He’s essentially free, so he’s more than worth it as a fifth or sixth outfielder.