Jason Heyward is a good hitter.
Saying as much heading into the 2016 season wouldn't have gotten much of a reaction. After all, he had just slashed .293/.359/.439 for a 100-win Cardinals team heading into free agency.
Once he signed a much-maligned contract with the Cubs, he just fell apart offensively. In 2016-17 combined, Heyward hit .243/.315/.353. Especially for a corner outfielder -- a position where big offensive production is expected -- that's straight-up awful.
Many -- and count me as part of this group -- had simply given up on him ever returning to form at the plate. He's not too old, he just looked lost for two seasons in a row.
To start this season, Heyward's performance was pretty similar to the last few years. After failing to get a hit in his one at-bat on May 28, Heyward was hitting .222/.306/.350 and mostly sitting in the eight-hole for the Cubs.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, something shook loose. In the next five games, Heyward got 12 hits in 23 at-bats. Cubs manager Joe Maddon should now be credited with throwing Heyward up into the two-hole in the lineup during this stretch, likely as a means to get him an extra boost of what might have been lacking more than anything else during 2017: Confidence.
This isn't just an incredibly tiny sample of a dude getting lucky now. After getting four more hits in a wild victory Saturday at a scorching hot Wrigley Field, Heyward is an equally hot .359/.392/.530 hitter in his last 28 games. During that stretch, he's smacked a walk-off grand slam and hit the ball all over the field with authority.
There are reasons to believe this could well be the real Heyward (that is, maintaining something like his current .291/.349/.440 line on the season). Let's run through the gauntlet of what we should be looking for.
The BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is .312 compared to a career mark of .300. Maybe some good fortune, but it's not a ton out of whack when you consider ...
He's hitting the ball harder than he has in years. Heading into Saturday, Heyward's hard-hit percentage was 34.0. He was at 26.4 in 2016 and a terrible 25.5 last year. His soft-hit percentage was also way down. Hitting the ball harder obviously leads to more hits, and that's more than likely what's driving his increase in BABIP, not luck.
The eye test is important in these matters, and he has been hitting it a lot harder. Perhaps more importantly, he's hitting it with authority to all fields. Through most of 2016-17, the most predictable result for a Heyward at-bat was a groundout to either first or second. He was just pounding it into the ground to the pull side, almost ridiculously. He only went the other way 19.8 percent of the time last season. This year, that mark was up to 25.6 percent heading into Saturday.
As noted, it's with authority much of the time, too. Check this one out from last weekend:
He had a similar shot that scored two in the 11th inning against the Brewers on June 11. Several others, too.
Quite simply, he looks like a good hitter. Don't discount the likelihood that he personally feels like a good hitter, either. A good hitter with confidence is a whole different animal from the one who had probably been lacking as much for the previous two seasons plus.
Obviously, we have to point out that it's entirely possible Heyward falls into a funk at some point and regresses back to what he was the previous two years, but he's been a good hitter in the past. Perhaps it was simply a matter of him getting hot in a Cubs uniform and internally feeling like he is "back."
If he is truly back, we're talking about a good hitter, exceptional defender, great baserunner and great teammate. That's then -- gasp! -- a worthwhile signing. Who would've thought that this past offseason?