The Dodgers have held on to the small signs of progress this spring, the promising moments when Jason Heyward’s new swing, reshaped and continuing a “work in progress,” as manager Dave Roberts called it, has been seen more as a finished product on the plate. .
Like when the veteran outfielder hit two home runs in the first week of spring training.
Or during live batting practice sessions at the start of camp, when he lined singles the other way.
Freddie Freeman began to believe in January, when he and Heyward hit together for the first time this offseason at Freeman’s old field El Modena High in Orange County, taking somersaults from Freeman’s father, Fred, and lobbing them around the outfield. .
“His first pitch was a missile that slammed into the center field wall,” recalled Freeman, an old friend of Heyward’s who went back to their days as young players with the Atlanta Braves. “It was the sound you heard 15 years ago, when you were like, ‘Wow, this guy is special.’ ”
It’s been enough for Heyward, who signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers this winter, to secure a likely spot on the club’s opening day team.
Even as his camp performance has declined in recent weeks, and he remains without a guarantee of regular-season production, it seems increasingly clear that he will have a role to play in the Dodgers’ outfield in 2023.
“I think it’s a safe bet,” Roberts said of Heyward’s chances of making the major league team. “He’s come into spring training with this new revamped swing that looks like he’s been doing it for a long time.”
Heyward’s mechanic has undergone a major makeover since last year, when prolonged offensive woes and a lingering knee injury led the Chicago Cubs to release him with one season remaining on an eight-year contract and $184 million.
Your hands are now lower and further back in your starting position. Her bat path is shorter and flatter than she used to be. And when it all clicked, he was able to cover more of the plate and adjust to off-speed pitches, key factors during his auspicious 4-for-10 start in Cactus League play.
“I’ve been working on it piece by piece,” said Heyward, who spent time this winter working with the Dodgers’ hitting coaches in Los Angeles and at their Camelback Ranch facility in Arizona. “Working with the group, trying to do my best”.
That, Heyward did quickly, taking advantage of a hole in center field created this offseason when the Dodgers didn’t offer Cody Bellinger and came up short for Kevin Kiermaier in free agency.
The team signed two other left-handed veterans to minor league deals, Steven Duggar and Bradley Zimmer, and has a top prospect pushing for an MLB spot in James Outman. But so far, it’s Heyward who leads the pack, combining his veteran poise and five-time Gold Glove defense with enough offensive potential to set himself apart from the pack.
“It’s not surprising when you’re talking about the character,” Roberts said. “From the day we signed him, he was committed to working with our hitters from then on, diligently. …Flying to Arizona. Flying to Los Angeles. Making sure things were cleaned up.”
However, with only two weeks to go until opening day, there are many improvements to be made to Heyward’s swing.
Since that hot early spring, the 33-year-old has cooled off dramatically. He entered one of his last 16 showings Thursday. He struck out eight times in 14 at-bats while searching for late fastballs and chasing pitches off the plate.
Roberts has downplayed the sudden regression.
“I don’t think anyone expected it to be linear,” the manager said. “I think it started out great, and then he had a little cold snap and he’s working on a few things.”
Heyward described it as part of the process of his long-term swing change, a byproduct of trying to replace short-term past fixes with more fundamental alterations to his game.
“Sometimes you tend to do things where you’re putting a Band-Aid on things and you want to get a quick result,” Heyward said. “But when you have the ability, you want to take advantage of that. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Still, exactly how much skill Heyward has left, and how well he can extract it before the start of the season, could be a key subplot for the Dodgers’ next campaign.
Originally, Heyward seemed poised for a bench role backing up Chris Taylor at center, likely to face right-handed shooters and provide defensive versatility late in games.
But in the wake of Gavin Lux’s season-ending knee injury, and the need for Taylor to now play more shortstop, Heyward could be poised for an even bigger role than most initially anticipated.
“If he can still stay in the strike zone and continue to work on that swing, clean up that swing, he’ll be fine,” Roberts said. “We are still excited about the trajectory.”