Generally, it’s finest to not mess with a superb factor. So say the Dodgers, who in keeping with ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel have re-signed proper fielder Jason Heyward to a one-year, $9 million contract.
In his first yr with the Dodgers, Heyward appeared in 124 video games, 98 of them begins, and hit .269/.340/.473 in 377 plate appearances. That’s a 121 wRC+! That’s 14th out of the 45 gamers who primarily performed proper discipline final yr and managed 300 or extra plate appearances, only a tick behind Adolis García, and forward of Nick Castellanos, Lars Nootbaar, Fernando Tatis Jr., and George Springer.
The separating issue is that every one 98 of Heyward’s begins got here towards right-handed pitchers final yr. You may say that $9 million is rather a lot to pay for a platoon nook outfielder. Poppycock! The Dodgers, who’ve harvested the infinite galactic energy of the cosmos, overpaying? The Dodgers, stuffed to the purpose of bursting with Guggenheim Companions’ limitless lucre, overpaying? Who cares? Certainly not I. To them, $9 million is a pittance, spent right here on a vital roster participant; in any other case it might need been spent on a medium-leverage aid pitcher, or caviar, or another frivolity.
The Heyward-Dodgers reunion is thrilling not simply because a superb group returns a productive participant, but additionally due to how effectively this participant matches with this group.
Heyward got here to be with the Dodgers final yr after the Cubs determined to launch him with a yr remaining on his contract. His eight-year, $184 million cope with the soon-to-be-champion Cubs was heralded because the final win-now transfer Chicago wanted with the intention to put its homegrown core excessive. And whereas they did win the World Collection the subsequent yr, his tenure was a catastrophe from the beginning. He hit .230/.306/.325 in his first yr with the Cubs, and issues by no means acquired a lot better after that.
Heyward, a star early in his profession with the Braves and Cardinals, seems like a middle-of-the-order hitter. However in actuality, his recreation is predicated on protection, and he hits too many grounders to place up massive house run totals, so what the Cubs ended up with is form of a really wealthy man’s Gerardo Parra. After seven seasons, they’d had sufficient, and paid him greater than $21 million in 2023 simply to be rid of him. He couldn’t have landed in a greater spot. The Dodgers are superb at inspecting gamers with each elite expertise and catastrophic flaws, then determining the way to maximize the previous and conceal the latter. That suited Heyward fairly effectively.
There’s a bizarre thread to Mookie Betts’ profession that feels underexamined regardless of being well-publicized, which is that he’s a second baseman who has spent his complete profession taking part in proper discipline. When Betts got here up with the Pink Sox, Dustin Pedroia had second base locked down. A center infielder with nice velocity and defensive instincts would ordinarily be a pure slot in heart, and Betts performed there for some time. However finally Jackie Bradley Jr., top-of-the-line defensive heart fielders of his technology, compelled Betts to maneuver over to proper. And he simply stayed there.
No person actually questioned it. Proper discipline is notoriously troublesome to play at Fenway, and Betts took to it with ease. Like Ichiro, everybody knew he might play a tougher place, however he was the most effective defensive proper fielder within the recreation, and he hit effectively sufficient to justify his continued presence in proper, so there he stayed. Even when he acquired traded to the Dodgers, he stayed there. Corey Seager and Trea Turner had the center infield locked down, and Cody Bellinger was taking part in Gold Glove-caliber protection in heart, so Betts stayed in proper.
This previous season was the primary time Betts ever wanted to play on the grime for lengthy stretches. Seager and Turner had been gone, Gavin Lux acquired harm and missed your entire season, and a gap opened up. (How the Dodgers received 100 video games with Miguel Vargas and Miguel Rojas getting the lion’s share of center infield begins, I’ll by no means know.) Betts is clearly able to taking part in second base, and even shortstop in a pinch. At second base, he’s an enormous asset; he’d be the most effective offensive second baseman since, like, Joe Morgan. However placing virtually anybody else in proper discipline would characterize an enormous defensive downgrade, to the purpose that Dave Roberts can be proper to suppose twice about making that transfer.
That’s the place Heyward got here in. Even through the darkish days of his time in Chicago, he might all the time nonetheless decide it. And that remained the case throughout his first season with the Dodgers, the place he was third in fielding runs amongst gamers who performed extra innings in proper discipline than at some other place. (Tatis and García completed forward of him.) Baseball Savant provides him loads of purple ink for his defensive exploits: 91st percentile in OAA, 87th in arm energy. If nothing else, he’s a ok defender to make Roberts be ok with shifting Betts. And certain sufficient: The Dodgers confronted 113 right-handed beginning pitchers final yr. In these video games, Betts made 59 begins at second base and 12 extra at shortstop; Heyward was in proper discipline for all however two of them.
So how did the Dodgers get round Heyward’s offensive troubles? Properly, the very first thing they did was protect him virtually utterly from same-handed pitching. The Cubs performed him every single day, particularly early in his tenure there. That’s an inexpensive expectation for a participant who’s making $23 million a yr. However it didn’t go effectively. Over seven seasons with the Cubs, he noticed slightly over 10,000 pitches, 22.5% of them from left-handed pitchers. That’s about what you’d anticipate for a left-handed hitter who isn’t being aggressively platooned. In 2023, although, Heyward didn’t make a single begin towards a left-handed starter and noticed simply 7.6% of his complete pitches towards lefties. That’s the sixth-lowest proportion out of the 112 left-handed hitters who noticed 1,000 or extra pitches final yr. That’s about as a lot as a hitter will be sheltered, and a wise transfer, contemplating he posted a wRC+ of 19 towards left-handed pitching in 2022.
Heyward’s utilization was so extraordinarily platoon-determined that I’m having a tough time telling how effectively he really hit lefties final yr. The numbers say: fairly effectively, with a 97 wRC+. Sadly, that’s the results of simply 26 plate appearances, which might imply something. He had a HR/FB% of 33.3 towards lefties final yr, which dwarfs his profession common of 9.1%. Was he promoting out for energy, or is that an artifact of his solely hitting six fly balls towards lefties all season? The Dodgers, based mostly on his utilization in 2023, don’t appear notably curious about discovering out.
Heyward is 34 years outdated, with greater than $200 million in profession earnings and a World Collection ring already behind him. And it appears that evidently he’s content material to stay on this position. That’s no small factor for a group just like the Dodgers — discovering a participant who’s efficient in restricted taking part in time however received’t disrupt the clubhouse by pushing for extra.
Heyward is arguably most well-known for delivering a speech that impressed his group to victory in Sport 7 of the World Collection — a speech that reportedly moved several Cubs players to tears. It would shock you to be taught that he’s good within the clubhouse. Freddie Freeman, who got here up with Heyward in Atlanta within the early 2010s, lobbied for him to return. James Outman cited him as a positive influence as he adjusted to the major leagues. Vibes stay as troublesome as ever to measure and quantify, however Heyward appears to have good ones.
Heyward is uniquely suited to fill the Dodgers’ particular wants on the sector, and the Dodgers put him able to play his finest baseball since, arguably, 2015. If each participant and membership had been pleased with that association final yr, it will be silly to not prolong that partnership for an additional season.