In appreciation of Jason Heyward

In appreciation of Jason Heyward

Published August 9, 2022
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His career in Chicago is over. It’s had its ups and downs, to be sure. In the end, though, I’m glad he was here.

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Monday evening, before the Cubs game against the Nationals, President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer told reporters that Jason Heyward wouldn’t play again this year and that he’d be released at the end of the season, as Josh posted here. The Cubs, said Hoyer, have younger outfielders they want to look at, and Heyward doesn’t fit into their future plans.

This is an odd day to be writing this article — today is Heyward’s 33rd birthday. But here we are.

Heyward’s career as a Cub has been controversial among many, due to the fact that his production didn’t live up to the money he was given — it’s still, by total dollars, the largest contract in Cubs franchise history. Presuming this is the end for him as a Cub, he hit .245/.323/.377 (85 OPS+) with 62 home runs in 744 games, worth 8.9 bWAR. That’s about 1.3 bWAR per season, obviously not what anyone had hoped for or expected.

Heyward was coming off a productive season in St. Louis when the Cubs signed him — a year worth 6.9 bWAR. Even if he’d done half that each year through his Cubs career it would have been worth it. But he didn’t. A lot of his failures were due to injuries. Heyward did not play 150 games in any of his seven Cubs seasons, and though he had decent years in 2019 and the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, 2021 and 2022 again were ruined by various injuries.

Through all of that, Heyward never made excuses, always worked hard and was a good teammate, and did win two Gold Gloves as a Cub and provided solid defense up to last year, when it was clear he was slowing down in right field.

Here are almost four minutes’ worth of Heyward defensive highlights — through the 2019 season:

There’s no doubt that Heyward was a superior defensive right fielder. A good bit of his value was from defense, even in down offensive seasons.

He did provide some memorable moments at the plate.

Remember this walkoff grand slam against the Phillies in 2018? Here’s an eight-minute video with an interview with Heyward about the situation, and then the home run:

He also hit a walkoff homer against the Marlins in the 11th inning in 2019, after the Cubs had blown a ninth-inning lead [VIDEO].

And, indulge me one more Heyward walkoff homer, if you don’t mind. This one was against the Reds in September 2021 [VIDEO].

That was Heyward’s last home run in Wrigley Field — and it’s the most recent Cubs walkoff homer hit by anyone, incidentally.

He hit one home run this year, off Luis Severino in Yankee Stadium [VIDEO].

Here is Heyward’s final hit as a Cub, a single to right against the Pirates June 22 [VIDEO].

Then there’s the proverbial elephant in the room — Heyward’s clubhouse speech during the brief rain delay in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. You might dismiss that and not think it mattered. I do think it mattered. So did the players, as noted by Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci:

“When we got in,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, “the mood was definitely down. All of us were just kind of pacing, and then J starts speaking.”

Heyward began, “I know some things may have happened tonight you don’t like. . . .”

“At first I was afraid it was going to be negative,” [David] Ross would say later, “and I thought, This is nothing any of these young players needed to be hearing. But it wasn’t that at all.”

“We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best team in baseball for a reason,” Heyward said. “Now we’re going to show it. We play like the score is nothing-nothing. We’ve got to stay positive and fight for your brothers. Stick together and we’re going to win this game.”

Other players began to speak up.

“Keep grinding!”

“Chappy, we’re going to pick you up.”

“This is only going to make it better when we win.”

The entire delay took only 17 minutes, but a different team came out of the weight room from the one that had entered it.

The players returned to the dugout. Reliever Bryan Shaw prepared to go back to the mound for Cleveland. Kyle Schwarber, due to lead off the inning in only his 17th at bat since returning from torn ligaments in his left knee, headed to the bat rack. “Borzy, I’ve got this,” he told catching coach Mike Borzello. “Don’t worry. I’m locked in.” The dugout suddenly was alive with shouting and joking.

Baseball is not just a game of numbers. If it were, Jason Heyward might be considered a failure, at least for his time in Chicago. As you probably know, players often spend more time together during the season than they do with their families. To have something like this happen, in a critical situation like that, and given the 108-year history the team was trying to throw off its back, I believe Heyward’s speech did make a difference. Now, did the players have to go out and produce after that? Of course they did, but if that little speech gave them the tiniest mental advantage, it was worth the entire $184 million contract — because that World Series win lasts forever.

Also, as you might recall, when Heyward was signed he chose, on his own, to pay for a suite for his teammate David Ross for the entire 2016 season. He didn’t have to do that — it was a kind gesture for a friend he’d made in his very first year in Atlanta, when he and Ross were teammates. That’s another measure of how good a human being Heyward is.

If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Ross and Nico Hoerner:

A couple postgame thoughts on Jason Heyward from David Ross and Nico Hoerner ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/Y2R2KIuz4Y

And this quote from Hoyer sums up Heyward quite well:

“Great teammate,” he said. “He’s a great defender. Someone who, even when he was struggling, tried his absolute hardest every day, every offseason. That’s kind of what I’ll remember. He certainly had his good moments here, but he had a lot of struggles as well. When he had those struggles, he never blamed anyone. He never stopped working. He was always a guy who showed up in the best shape coming into every season. He was always a guy who was in the cages trying to get better. That’s probably how I’ll remember him.”

Beyond all that, Heyward’s charitable work in the community has been outstanding. He’s a fine human being and though his Cubs tenure on the field has been disappointing, I’m glad he was part of our favorite team for seven years. I wish him well going forward; Hoyer’s comments Monday indicated that Heyward still wants to play, and with the Cubs paying off his 2023 commitment, perhaps some team will take a chance on him at the minimum salary.

But after that, I’d love to see the Cubs bring Heyward back into a front-office or coaching role. I think he could help this team in many off-the-field ways.

Hail and farewell, Jason Heyward. And again, thanks for that clubhouse speech.