Posted on December 21, 2016 by Bryan Zarpentine
Despite helping the Chicago Cubs win the World Series in his first year in the Windy City, outfielder Jason Heyward wasn’t pleased with his performance in 2016. After signing an eight-year, $184 million contract last offseason, Heyward proceeded to have the worst offensive season of his career, hitting .230 with an OPS of .631, nearly 80 points below his previous career low. But instead of being content with mediocrity or satisfied because his team won, Heyward is hard at work this winter, as he tries to rebound in 2017 and become part of his team’s success instead of one of the few players holding the Cubs back.
Heyward is spending the offseason in Arizona working with Darnell McDonald, Chicago’s mental skills coach. Clearly, there isn’t anything physically wrong with Heyward, who is still just 27 years old and should be entering the prime of his career. However, Heyward working with the Cubs mental skills coach points to his struggles in 2016 being mental. With Heyward signing the first big contract of his career and joining a team with high expectations, it shouldn’t be surprising that he felt added pressure to perform, which may have had a negative affect on him.
A new mental approach isn’t the only thing Heyward is working on this offseason. Earlier this week, McDonald posted a video on Instagram of Heyward in the batting cage, showing off a new swing. Compared to his batting stance from 2016, Heyward has made wholesale changes to his swing. His bat is now straight up and his hands are in a completely different place. His feet are also in a different place, and his bat appears to be quicker to the ball.
Of course, just about any major leaguer is going to look impressive hitting in a batting cage in the middle of December, so there’s no way of knowing if the changes to Heyward’s swing or attitude will make a difference once the season starts. However, those in the Cubs front office believe that Heyward is capable of getting things turned around and becoming the player he’s been in past seasons.
“You’re not re-inventing him but getting him back to some of the places where he had the most success,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said about Heyward during the Winter Meetings. “We want to tweak his mechanics to the times when he had success — 27 homers in 2012 — and get him back to those places.”
Hoyer also hinted that Heyward would be working hard during the winter to rediscover the play he once was. “We’re not asking him to do new things but go back to doing things he did well. He’s totally bought in and excited to get started,” Hoyer said.
The Cubs believe that after putting in the work this winter, Heyward will ultimately return to the player they thought they were signing last offseason. “Cubs fans haven’t seen the type of hitter that Jason Heyward is — and can be — yet,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “But I think they will.”
If Heyward is able to find the player he once was, the Cubs will have a dimension that they didn’t have in 2016, and a player who can help make up for the loss of Dexter Fowler, who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals earlier this month. However, if Heyward can’t get things turned around, he risks losing his spot in the lineup with all of the other options the Cubs have in their outfield. It may be just year-two of an eight-year contract, but Heyward is approaching make-or-break territory. He’s just hoping that his hard work this offseason will lead to success on the field in 2017.