HomeTrending MLB NewsEscape From L.A.? Not Jason Heyward

Escape From L.A.? Not Jason Heyward

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Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, it’s best not to mess with a good thing. So say the Dodgers, who according to ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel have re-signed right fielder Jason Heyward to a one-year, $9 million contract.

In his first year with the Dodgers, Heyward appeared in 124 games, 98 of them starts, and hit .269/.340/.473 in 377 plate appearances. That’s a 121 wRC+! That’s 14th out of the 45 players who primarily played right field last year and managed 300 or more plate appearances, just a tick behind Adolis García, and ahead of Nick Castellanos, Lars Nootbaar, Fernando Tatis Jr., and George Springer.

The separating factor is that all 98 of Heyward’s starts came against right-handed pitchers last year. You might say that $9 million is a lot to pay for a platoon corner outfielder. Poppycock! The Dodgers, who have harvested the infinite galactic power of the cosmos, overpaying? The Dodgers, stuffed to the point of bursting with Guggenheim Partners’ limitless lucre, overpaying? Who cares? Surely not I. To them, $9 million is a pittance, spent here on a crucial roster player; otherwise it might have been spent on a medium-leverage relief pitcher, or caviar, or some other frivolity.

The Heyward-Dodgers reunion is exciting not just because a good team returns a productive player, but also because of how well this player fits with this team.

Heyward came to be with the Dodgers last year after the Cubs decided to release him with a year remaining on his contract. His eight-year, $184 million deal with the soon-to-be-champion Cubs was heralded as the last win-now move Chicago needed in order to put its homegrown core over the top. And while they did win the World Series the next year, his tenure was a disaster from the start. He hit .230/.306/.325 in his first year with the Cubs, and things never got much better after that.

Heyward, a star early in his career with the Braves and Cardinals, looks like a middle-of-the-order hitter. But in reality, his game is based on defense, and he hits too many grounders to put up big home run totals, so what the Cubs ended up with is sort of a very rich man’s Gerardo Parra. After seven seasons, they’d had enough, and paid him more than $21 million in 2023 just to be rid of him. He could not have landed in a better spot. The Dodgers are very good at examining players with both elite skills and catastrophic flaws, then figuring out how to maximize the former and hide the latter. That suited Heyward quite well.

There’s a weird thread to Mookie Betts’ career that feels underexamined despite being well-publicized, which is that he’s a second baseman who has spent his entire career playing right field. When Betts came up with the Red Sox, Dustin Pedroia had second base locked down. A middle infielder with great speed and defensive instincts would ordinarily be a natural fit in center, and Betts played there for a while. But eventually Jackie Bradley Jr., one of the best defensive center fielders of his generation, forced Betts to move over to right. And he just stayed there.

Nobody really questioned it. Right field is notoriously difficult to play at Fenway, and Betts took to it with ease. Like Ichiro, everyone knew he could play a more difficult position, but he was the best defensive right fielder in the game, and he hit well enough to justify his continued presence in right, so there he stayed. Even when he got traded to the Dodgers, he stayed there. Corey Seager and Trea Turner had the middle infield locked down, and Cody Bellinger was playing Gold Glove-caliber defense in center, so Betts stayed in right.

This past season was the first time Betts ever needed to play on the dirt for long stretches. Seager and Turner were gone, Gavin Lux got hurt and missed the entire season, and a hole opened up. (How the Dodgers won 100 games with Miguel Vargas and Miguel Rojas getting the lion’s share of middle infield starts, I’ll never know.) Betts is obviously capable of playing second base, or even shortstop in a pinch. At second base, he’s a huge asset; he’d be the best offensive second baseman since, like, Joe Morgan. But putting almost anyone else in right field would represent a huge defensive downgrade, to the point that Dave Roberts would be right to think twice about making that move.

That’s where Heyward came in. Even during the dark days of his time in Chicago, he could always still pick it. And that remained the case during his first season with the Dodgers, where he was third in fielding runs among players who played more innings in right field than at any other position. (Tatis and García finished ahead of him.) Baseball Savant gives him plenty of red ink for his defensive exploits: 91st percentile in OAA, 87th in arm strength. If nothing else, he’s a good enough defender to make Roberts feel good about moving Betts. And sure enough: The Dodgers faced 113 right-handed starting pitchers last year. In those games, Betts made 59 starts at second base and 12 more at shortstop; Heyward was in right field for all but two of them.

So how did the Dodgers get around Heyward’s offensive troubles? Well, the first thing they did was shield him almost completely from same-handed pitching. The Cubs played him every day, especially early in his tenure there. That’s a reasonable expectation for a player who’s making $23 million a year. But it didn’t go well. Over seven seasons with the Cubs, he saw a little over 10,000 pitches, 22.5% of them from left-handed pitchers. That’s about what you’d expect for a left-handed hitter who isn’t being aggressively platooned. In 2023, though, Heyward didn’t make a single start against a left-handed starter and saw just 7.6% of his total pitches against lefties. That’s the sixth-lowest percentage out of the 112 left-handed hitters who saw 1,000 or more pitches last year. That’s about as much as a hitter can be sheltered, and a smart move, considering he posted a wRC+ of 19 against left-handed pitching in 2022.

Heyward’s usage was so extremely platoon-determined that I’m having a hard time telling how well he actually hit lefties last year. The numbers say: pretty well, with a 97 wRC+. Unfortunately, that’s the result of just 26 plate appearances, which could mean anything. He had a HR/FB% of 33.3 against lefties last year, which dwarfs his career average of 9.1%. Was he selling out for power, or is that an artifact of his only hitting six fly balls against lefties all season? The Dodgers, based on his usage in 2023, don’t seem particularly interested in finding out.

Heyward is 34 years old, with more than $200 million in career earnings and a World Series ring already behind him. And it seems that he’s content to remain in this role. That’s no small thing for a team like the Dodgers — finding a player who’s effective in limited playing time but won’t disrupt the clubhouse by pushing for more.

Heyward is arguably most famous for delivering a speech that inspired his team to victory in Game 7 of the World Series — a speech that reportedly moved several Cubs players to tears. It might surprise you to learn that he’s good in the clubhouse. Freddie Freeman, who came up with Heyward in Atlanta in the early 2010s, lobbied for him to return. James Outman cited him as a positive influence as he adjusted to the major leagues. Vibes remain as difficult as ever to measure and quantify, but Heyward seems to have good ones.

Heyward is uniquely suited to fill the Dodgers’ specific needs on the field, and the Dodgers put him in a position to play his best baseball since, arguably, 2015. If both player and club were happy with that arrangement last year, it would be foolish not to extend that partnership for another season.

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