LOS ANGELES — Jason Heyward is on the verge of his greatest achievement while playing the worst baseball of his career. He is one win away from the World Series, but batting so poorly that he probably won’t be in the lineup for it. His $184 million contract makes him a target for Cubs fans, but they’re so excited right now, who cares?
Yes, I think we can agree: Of all the players in the National League Championship Series, Heyward is experiencing the strangest moment.
Heyward is not just struggling at the plate. He looks feeble, inept. In his first at bat of this series, he hit a triple. Since then, he has had 17 plate appearances. He has reached base twice—once on an intentional walk. He has hit two balls out of the infield.
It’s to the point where watching him is uncomfortable, like when you see a couple have a screaming match or a stranger burst into tears. Sometimes, during a Heyward plate appearance, I think we should all look away and respect his privacy during this difficult time.
During the Cubs’ 8–4 Game 5 win over the Dodgers, the best thing Heyward did in the batter’s box was stand there. I’m serious: He got hit by a pitch. In his other four plate appearances, he popped out to the catcher, popped out to the second baseman and struck out twice.
“You’re never gonna feel good at the plate unless you’re getting hits and contributing,” Heyward said. “I’m not feeling good that I’m not doing a whole lot to help.”
There are a lot of ways a man can handle something like this. He can be surly, distant, feisty or self-loathing. Here is how Heyward is doing it: He is playing exceptional defense in rightfield. In Game 4, he nailed Adrian Gonzalez at the plate (replays showed Gonzalez may have been safe, but regardless, the throw was outstanding.) He hit a chopper to second base for a sacrifice. He is answering questions patiently and respectfully after every game.
“He’s high-fiving guys in the dugout,” catcher David Ross said. “I haven’t seen any moping. He’s fine.”
Get close enough to the Cubs—who took a 3–2 series lead with their win Thursday—and you start to understand there are two Jason Heywards. There is the one everybody else sees, and the one they see.
Everybody else sees a $184 million bust. There are good reasons for this. When the Cubs signed Heyward last spring, a lot of people wondered if they paid an exorbitant premium for an average hitter whose advanced-metrics value was misleading. He is a corner outfielder. How much could his defense really be worth?
Then he went out and put up a .231/.306/.325 line this year, which is even worse than it looks. Of the 146 players who qualified for the batting title, Heyward was 144th in OPS. The most absurd part of that $184 million contract is that Heyward can opt out after three years. That would be like throwing a pot of gold into the Chicago River so you can hail a cab.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon has tried everything. During the regular season, Maddon dropped Heyward from the No. 2 spot in the order. (Heyward batted sixth Thursday.) Maddon gave Heyward the night off in Game 3. Even for a team as focused on winning this year as the Cubs, a $184 million contract is hard to ignore. The Cubs can’t give up on Heyward for good, so how can they give up on him for now?
And yet, it’s hard to imagine Heyward in the lineup for Game 6 against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. Heyward hit .207 against lefties this year, with a .300 on-base percentage and a .286 slugging percentage. And his second half was worse than his first half. And his postseason has been worse than his second half. I just don’t see how you can ask Jason Heyward to hit against Clayton Kershaw right now. And if the series goes seven, Heyward might sit against lefty Rich Hill, too. Maddon sat him once against Hill already.
So that’s the Heyward we see—or won’t see, if he doesn’t play. The Cubs see a fantastic teammate. They talk about him the way you would want people to talk about you when you’re not around.
Ross says, “We’re just worried about winning. Nobody is worried about their numbers. I think Jason is a guy that really doesn’t carry a whole lot from game to game. He’s able to get rid of those things.”
Catcher Miguel Montero says: “I don’t know if he’s pressing or not, honestly. But he’s been doing a great job for us. It’s not about that in the playoffs. It’s about winning ball games. … It’s easy to judge people when you see their batting average. That doesn’t mean anything, man, because you can win games so many different ways. [Wednesday] he was a big factor for us.”
By “big factor,” Montero was referring to the groundout and throw to the plate in Game 4. That’s not $184 million big, obviously, but it’s as big as Heyward can muster right now. There is something noble in that. After that groundout, he exulted at first base, and it looked like something more than the thrill of a simple groundball. He looked relieved that he had helped the cause.
“Those are things you’ve gotta have right now,” Heyward said. “Honestly, man, just go up there and try to get on base. Get a hit any way you can. Draw a walk. That’s going to help you start to feel good.”
Heyward is only 27. He may need a swing overhaul this winter; somewhere along the way, his swing became easy to exploit. In the meantime, his team is on the verge of the World Series. Heyward always said that was why he came to Chicago. In an odd way, he is proving he meant it.