Jason Heyward was extremely atrocious last season, the first after he signed a mammoth eight-year, $184-million contract with the Chicago Cubs. His numbers—.230/.306/.325, a measly 35 extra-base hits in 592 plate appearances—were puke, due in no small part to a janky, splayed-out, multi-stage wreck of a swing that, by the time Cubs skipper Joe Maddon mercifully benched him for the first three games of the World Series, had come to make you think of nothing so much as an unsteady tripod dropping a camera on the floor.
I get the sense it’s just tough and kind of unnatural for Jason Heyward, a lanky 6-foot-5 dude with outrageously long arms, to maintain a swing with a circumference smaller than the Moon’s orbit. Anyway, that’s the backdrop to a fun article by Ken Rosenthal on Fox Sports’ website today, detailing the time Heyward spent this offseason essentially rebuilding his swing from scratch.
As you might imagine, rebuilding a major-league ballplayer’s swing is not an easy process. From the article:
Initially, the coaches simply wanted Heyward to develop a new routine, find what worked for him. He didn’t face actual pitching for at least a month, Mallee said.
“We had to slow everything down and start from scratch,” [hitting coach John] Mallee said. Take the chalkboard, wipe it clean, rewrite the formula, and rewrite it over and over and over again.
The process was pain-staking.
You can imagine! Swinging at a pitch is one of baseball’s most fundamental actions; Heyward’s been doing it since he was a little kid. By the time a big-league position player records over 4,000 plate appearances (as Heyward has), his swing incorporates tics and habits and tendencies built up over more repetitions—far more!—than the average person has given to writing their own name. You know how, for the first couple days or weeks after the New Year, you unconsciously screw up the year part when you write the date? Imagine if you’d been writing the same date like a hundred times a day since you were old enough to pick up a pen.
All of this is to say, fixing Heyward’s swing wasn’t just a matter of thinking up a more efficient motion and telling him, “Do this instead.” He and his coaches had to clear out decades of deeply ingrained muscle memory first—and then replace it with new muscle memory, so that the first time he faced real pitching, he wouldn’t unconsciously revert to the old swing the first time he hacked at a ball.
A sample of the tedium this involved:
Heyward would work off a tee, then hit balls flipped to him. He did top-hand and bottom-hand drills, worked with short bats and longer bats, getting a feel for how to control the barrel with both. He also would do walkup drills, taking a couple of steps toward the ball to help his timing, help him hit the bottom half of the ball, get it in the air.
Then he would grab a regular bat.
Holy smokes, that sounds maddening. I guess the fact that he has to swing at baseballs on live television with hundreds of thousands of people watching and critiquing him many hundreds of times a year for a living is a good motivator to stick with it.
Here’s Heyward’s new swing. Looks sharp!
He’s 0-for-8 in the Cactus League so far. Rosenthal quotes Mallee as saying, “He may be better than he ever was.” I honestly don’t know whether those two sentences, paired together, are depressing or not.
Anyway if, like me, you have a bizarre fascination with the mechanics of playing baseball, this article is a blast. Go read it now.