Can Heyward Lay Off Breaking Balls in the Dirt?

Watching the Braves’ game on Sunday, I think, the announcer noted that Jason Heyward was having trouble laying-off breaking pitches in the dirt, and that is what it looked like to me in the couple of at-bats I have seen from him. I turned to the pitchf/x data to see whether that was the case. Here I plot all non-fastballs Heyward has seen so far: the pitches are color-coded with the FanGraphs PitchF/X section’s color scheme: whiffed pitches are encircled and contacted ones ex-ed. The graph is from the catcher’s perspective, so Heyward, a lefty, stands to the right of the zone, and the location indicated is where the pitch crosses the plate.

That is a striking trend. Of the 18 non-fastballs below the zone, he has swung at 12 of them and not made contact with one. On non-fastballs in the zone, on the other hand, he has 16 swings and just one whiff — and actually swings at a smaller percentage of non-fastballs in the zone than below the zone. So it does look like Heyward is having quite a problem laying off those pitches, and that results in tons of swinging strikes.

At just twenty years old, even a player as phenomenal as Heyward is going to have a transition period — Dave C. talked a little bit about this in yesterday’s podcast. In 31 PAs so far Heyward has an encouraging three HRs and five walks, but also ten strikeouts. So it looks like a big part of this transition period might be these low breaking balls and changeups that will result in a number of swinging strikes. And he will only see more of these pitches going forward if he continues to struggle with them.

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Dave Allen's other baseball work can be found at Baseball Analysts.

16 Responses to “Can Heyward Lay Off Breaking Balls in the Dirt?”

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  1. Temo says:

    You’re a bit late on this, as he was swinging and whiffing on all those pitches early, but has already made an adjustment. He now appears to be taking all those pitches low and not swinging at all (however, I cannot recall if all the low pitches he’s been taking were breaking balls or not)

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    • Bronnt says:

      Might be a bit early to declare that “He’s already made the adjustment,” but over the past 3 games, he’s laid off those and only has 2 strike outs against 4 walks. Small sample size, but then again, we’re looking at a trend from the first 7 games, so that’s 43% of available data.

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      • ajones2522 says:

        True, it’s probably a little early for either declaration but it looks to me like he’s already made an adjustment. I’m sure Carlos Marmol sliders have done much worse damage that putting a 20-year-old in a 3 game mini-slump. He already looked much better against Lincecum and a tough lefty in Dan Runzler.

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      • Temo says:

        Well yea, I mean I wouldn’t use small sample sizes if the original post didn’t also use small sample sizes.

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    • Temo says:

      Yea, he’s seen 7 changeups, 6 sliders, and 5 curves the past 2 days and he whiffed on only 3 changeups. He swung at 5 of the changeups, 2 of the sliders, and 4 of the curves.

      The changeup whiffs are all due to Mr. Lincecum, who Heyward faced on Sunday.

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  2. Even assuming this is a large enough sample size, without looking at other hitters- other good hitters- and comparing them to other young hitters it’s a bit hard to make sense of this.
    Is this worrying? is this normal? does it predict future performance at all?

    Good idea to build on for sure, specifically if it can bee refined to 2-strike and less than 2-strike situations.

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  3. Alex says:

    I think it would also be telling to look at the counts those pitches came in. Just from casual observation it seems like many of the swings and misses at offspeed stuff low have come when Heyward has been down in the count, especially with 2 strikes already. I think part of the problem is being overaggressive trying to protect the plate when he’s behind in the count.

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    • Bill says:

      Good point with the pitch count. Seems like every count he’s been in of late is either 3-2 or 2-2 and he’s just fouling off pitches until he strikes out or walks.

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  4. Benne says:

    If the dude is cranking out a .437 wOBA even with this flaw, then that’s a pretty damn good problem to have. I haven’t been this excited for a rookie campaign since Pujols in ’01.

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  5. Temo says:

    Actually, going back to Saturday (the day after his 4 strikeout performance), he’s seen 10 Sliders and 5 curves. Of the 15, 8 were taken for strikes, 2 were taken for balls, 3 were fouled off, and 2 were put in play (a fly out and a single).

    So he’s still making most of his bones off the fastball and his current strategy seems to be just lay off all breaking balls and wait for a fastball (which he almost never misses).

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  6. Dan says:

    Looking at his pitch value, he can hit the fastball, but not the curve. No real suprise there.

    The question to my mind isn’t can he lay off the breaking ball in the dirt, but rather can he lay off the breaking ball in the dirt and still effectively hit the low fastball?

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  7. Mike Fast says:

    On Saturday 4/10, he didn’t whiff on any pitches, but he also only got one non-fastball below the zone, a slider that he took for ball four. Mostly they were feeding him a steady diet of fastballs all day.

    On Sunday 4/11, he got two low changeups in his first at bat and whiffed on both for a strikeout. In his second AB, he whiffed on another low changeup, the only non-fastball he saw below the zone, and eventually popped up a fastball. Third AB he saw two fastballs and grounded out. Fourth AB he saw all fastballs except for one curveball way outside, and he homered off a fastball.

    On Monday 4/12, he didn’t see any low non-fastballs all day.

    I wouldn’t say there’s much evidence that’s he has started laying off the non-fastball pitches that are below the zone.

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  8. Justin says:

    This seems so ridiculous to publish. I get it, but this kid is just doing amazing right now. If this is his only flaw get his place ready for Cooperstown because he will be amazing.

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  9. ray says:

    I think I remember A nother young outfeilder by the name of A. Jones, who was (is) one of the best in center, but never learn to lay off the junk stuff thowned at Him.

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