Heyward’s Walk

Nineteen ninety-six was a special year. Baseball was back for 162 games for the first time since 1993 and baseball had a new star on its hands. After a cup of coffee in ’94 and a brief hello in ’95, Alex Rodriguez secured himself a starting role with the Mariners in ’96 and has not looked back since. Rodriguez would league the American League in runs (141), doubles (54), total bases (379) and batting average (.358) that year while putting up a triple slash line of .358/.414/.631, good for a .444 wOBA. Rodriguez was just 20 years old at the time.

It is 14 years later and baseball has another 20-year-old on its stardom radar screen. Jason Heyward isn’t having near the sort of season that Rodriguez had back then, his power numbers falling way short, but that is no knock against Jason. He’s still having a borderline MVP caliber season and in fact is sharing one distinction with Rodriguez’s ’96 season: an OBP over .400.

Looking at every player season since integration in 1947, only two other players had a better OBP at Heyward’s age. One of them was Rodriguez’s .414 mark in 1996, but Heyward’s is arguably more impressive given that the league average OBP in A-Rod’s year was .350 compared to .324 for the NL this year. On an OBP+ scale, only Al Kaline’s 1955 .421 OBP surpasses Heyward’s current achievement.

Heyward certainly has the raw power to be a slugger, but he lacks the proper approach to be a 40-homerun hitter. He’s always been more of a ground ball hitter but thanks to his already good discipline skills, Heyward does not have to rely on getting those home runs to succeed.

Of the 11 people to OBP > .400 before 23 since integration:
6 are in the Hall of Fame
2 will be (Albert Pujols, A-Rod)
1 might be (Adam Dunn)
1 is Heyward

And the other was Billy Goodman who did it when the league OBP was .349
Back in early July, Dave Cameron wrote in his trade value series that “Almost everyone who is this good at this age becomes a superstar, and few doubt that Heyward is headed that way.” It’s easy to get too ahead of ourselves in projecting current performance to sustain itself into the future, but it might be worth considering if Heyward isn’t headed to super stardom but instead might already be there.




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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.


51 Responses to “Heyward’s Walk”

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  1. GiantPain says:

    I predict that before this thread is over, it will have devolved into a discussion of whether or not Adam Dunn belongs in the Hall.

    Heyward is good though. Yup.

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    • quint says:

      or whether A-Rod will get into the hall of fame.

      Heyward is just fun to watch, since day one he has looked not only like he belongs, but that he is one of the top players in the league (not saying he is, but he looks like one).

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  2. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Jason Heyward is an alien sent from the future to unite humanity and bring world peace.

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  3. Brian McCann says:

    Heyward is “having a borderline MVP caliber season,” really. I don’t think you can say that. I doubt he gets any votes. He currently ranks 18th in WAR in the NL. He’s been worth 2.4 less wins than Zimmerman this year. Don’t get me wrong he’s been fabulous for a rookie and lived up to some lofty expectations, but MVP, he’s not even the MVP of his own team.

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  4. Justin says:

    It would have been an even better year had he not lost all of June to injury, but still a great 20 year old season anyway.

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  5. Phantom Stranger says:

    That thumb injury he played with for nearly a month really held down his power numbers this season. Incredible plate discipline for a player of any age, the umpires started giving him veteran borderline calls by June or July. Amazing power, but his swing is a bit long and lanky. Good breaking stuff still gives him slight problems, but he has learned to adjust and not swing at them out of the zone.

    He really is an incredible talent, though A-Rod had more polished hitting mechanics at the same age. Heyward needs to shorten his swing and add a slight upper cut to the swing as it goes through the zone. He would be wise to watch tape of Bonds at-bats. Minor adjustments could easily see him double his homers in a year or two.

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    • Doogolas says:

      That thing about getting the veteran calls is just blatant crap. His best BB% all year have been in April and May (and a still small sample size in September). June and July were, in fact, his two worst months for walks.

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      • Phantom Stranger says:

        The raw numbers do not really tell the complete story in this instance. Pitchers adjusted to Heyward’s tendencies as scouting reports circulated around the league. Most rookies are thrown fastballs until they prove they can hit them, then the pitchers start breaking out the secondary stuff. The change in BB% was a reflection of what pitchers were throwing, not a change in how umpires were calling Jason’s strike zone.

        There was a perception he had a hole in his swing at the lower right edge of the plate, because he was standing so far off the plate at one point. Pitchers were spotting their breaking pitches there to get him out.

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  6. Travis says:

    I’m not exaggerating when I say he hits line drives harder than I’ve ever seen anybody else hit. Sometimes to his detriment.

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    • OremLK says:

      He needs that uppercut. He has ridiculous raw power. Needs to hit more balls in the air.

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      • KG says:

        I’ve heard that young guys often add some loft to their swing as they gain experience, hitting more flyballs the older they get. If that’s the case here, he should be good to go.

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    • don says:

      He’s gonna have some competition in his division. Mike Stanton hit a line drive double to the centerfield wall the other day against the Phillies that was probably the hardest hit ball I’ve ever seen. Victorino took about two steps before it was over his head.

      Unfortunately MLB only seems to archive plays that score runs.

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  7. this guy says:

    At least now you people see how absurd it was to rank any prospect above this guy.

    Strasburg over Heyward = Joke.

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    • Alice says:

      Is this because you knew ahead of time that Strasburg was going to blow out his elbow? Otherwise I’m not sure why it would have been a joke to rate one over the other. They both have proven they are legitimate stars. If you don’t like rating pitching prospects highly because of the injury risk fine, but I’m not sure how one could have any real quibble with either of those two guys…

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      • Adam says:

        It depends on what you mean by a “better” prospect. As a pitcher, the risk of blowing out his arm (which is inherent in any pitcher) made Heyward in a very real way more valuable than Strasburg even before the injury—the safety of being a hitter.

        That being said, I don’t think there is much point in trying to compare hitting prospects to pitching prospects; the difference in what they do and the difference in inherent injury risk makes that a fool’s errand.

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    • Ben says:

      Good point. Except for the part where Strasburg outperformed Heyward in the majors.

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      • KG says:

        Except he didn’t. Thanks for playing.

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      • MarkW says:

        In what world has a guy who’s 9th in the NL in wOBA not been outperformed by a guy with a 2.09 FIP – which is the best in the majors this year for any starting pitchers with over 50 IP?

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      • Ben says:

        KG- Instead of using derisiveness, could you perhaps use facts? I believe that is the point of this site.

        I guess I should have spelled it out more. Strasburg accumulated a ridiculous 2.6 WAR in only 68 innings (only one other pitcher has started fewer than 100 innings and racked up even 2 WAR). He had a 2.16 xFIP, and struck out 12 batters per nine innings. He fastball, curveball, and change up velocities were all the highest of any starting pitcher in the majors (and #2, 3, and 2 overall, respectively).

        Simply put, it would not be difficult to make the argument that during his time in the majors, Stephen Strasburg was the best pitcher in baseball. Heyward’s had a fantastic season and is destined for superstardom, but you can’t even legitimately argue that he was the best right fielder in baseball, much less outfielder or offensive player.

        Unless, as Alice said, you’re simply referring to the fact that Strasburg’s injury risk should have trumped his value, then I don’t know what there is to compare here. It’s hard for me to see how Strasburg was not a better player while in the majors than Heyward has been.

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      • KG says:

        MarkW and Ben, The key word here is health. He performed well during his time in the majors, yes, but it was, unfortunately, a brief period. Had Strasburg been healthy the entire year, yes, he may well have outperformed Heyward in the majors this year.

        But one of the key components of evaluating player performance is durability. This is a big factor. You say use facts. Heyward has put up 4.5 WAR this year. Strasburg put up 2.6 WAR. Heyward has clearly outperformed Strasburg in the majors this year by this metric, which takes into account durability, among other factors.

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      • frug says:

        Apparently you forgot the part where Strasburg suffered a season ending injury after pitching all of 68 innings. Health is a skill (especially when it relates to issues of mechanics as in this case) and Heyward demonstrated it this year better than Strasburg. In his brief time at the big league level Strasburg was great, but it was just too brief to argue that he was better than Heyward.

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      • BX says:

        Health is not a “skill.”

        It is a function of luck.

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      • Alex Poterack says:

        I would say health is both a skill and a function of luck. I think you can rate Strasburg and Heyward differently depending on how you value health, but it’s not at all ridiculous to say Strasburg performed better than Heyward in spite of his injury. It’s also not ridiculous to say Heyward performed better because he was able to stay on the field. Both are perfectly reasonable opinions–anyone who tells you they know EXACTLY how to incorporate a player’s health into an evaluation of their talent level that successfully distinguishes true talent from luck is, well, full of shit.

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  8. DC_31 says:

    Well, Heyward doesn’t hit with an “inverted-W” and Strasburg throws with one. Some people did notice that, actually.

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  9. jaremy says:

    If you think Dunn has any chance of getting into the Hall, you’re crazy. Also, Arod probably won’t because of the steroid taint on his record.

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    • that guy says:

      If Dunn accepts a DH job and has any longevity, he stands a chance on power numbers alone. Sure his defense is terrible and he strikes out a ton but his power and patience are great. It’s just a matter of how long he stays around for those counting stats to pile up.

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    • scott says:

      dunn has a solid chance to get in on counting stats alone. say what you will about him, but once he cranks number 500, he’s a lock. strikeouts, iron glove and all.

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  10. Steve says:

    On an OBP+ scale, only Al Kaline’s 1955 .421 OBP surpasses Heyward’s current achievement.
    Now there was an under-rated all-time great.

    As for Heyward, I think he will be fine moving on in his career. game is all about adjustments, and he has done that part well in this his first year.

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  11. Jimbo says:

    Curious what folks think Heyward’s over/under for HR might be in 2011.

    Starting out close to 20hr/10sb, with an injury and lost month, at his age…could he hit 25 next year? 30?

    30hr is the new 40hr.

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  12. deadpool says:

    I’ll tell you this, if Stanton does hit the ball as hard as Heyward then it’s only because they’ve both maxed out that ability. Way back in ST I saw Heyward hit a bullet that missed the SSs glove by like a foot and then go on to hit the wall on one hop. Heyward shouldve cleared 20HR easily this year, but he lost almost a month straight up and at least half a month more in the power department. I’ll take any odds on him averaging 30HR a year from here to age 32.

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  13. bstar says:

    I’m not that concerned about Heyward’s HR totals for a few years. He’s 20, for God’s sake. Even most great home run hitters take a few years to refine their swing into more of an uppercut. If Heyward doesn’t, he ends up being Dave Winfield with way more walks. If he does, the sky’s the limit, baby.

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  14. Temo says:

    You know what’s funny– during ST when everyone was trying to make Jason Heyward comparisons to past greats, it was Bobby Cox who said that he saw a lot of Al Kaline in the kid; he even had Kaline come in before opening day to speak to Heyward.

    Kaline also didn’t hit many HRs (for a HoF guy, anyway) during his career, just a ton of LDs.

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  15. Of course, comparing Heyward to Alex Rodriguez’s 1996 season is unfair because — comparing Rodriguez to Rodriguez’s 1996 season is unfair. It was the best season of his career. He didn’t match his 9.8 WAR until 2002 with the Rangers, and he didn’t post another wOBA above .440 until he was on the 2007 Yankees (his .449 wOBA was exactly 5 points higher than what he’d posted as a 20-year old).

    Rodriguez’s 1996 is the stuff of legend, and rightly so. But it’s aberrant even within the context of his own amazing career. On the other hand, it’s not at all surprising to see Jason Heyward post an OBP above .400, even if it’s remarkable that he’s doing it so soon into his career. I have little doubt that he has the talent to outperform his 2010 numbers. While Rodriguez’s 1996 was a career year, like Fred Lynn’s 1975, Heyward’s 2010 is almost certainly anything but.

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    • vivaelpujols says:

      Heyward’s BABIP is .345. He’s amazing, but he needs to improve his power or cut down on his strikeouts to sustain this level of performance going forward.

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      • TCQ says:

        xBABIP: .343

        I’m sure that .002 point regression is gonna sting like a sumbitch.

        On a less snarky note, that’s just using basic LD% as a main input, and anecdotal as it is, I think if we had Hit F/X data he really would be up there for the hardest hit balls in the league.

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      • Nitram Odarp says:

        Plus, you know, he just turned 21, so there is every reason to think he’ll improve his power going forward.

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  16. TK says:

    Hank Aaron’s age 20-22 162 game HRs = 26 (career 37)
    Ken Griffey’s 20-22 162 game HRs = 26 (career 38)
    Jason Heyward’s 20 162 game HRs = 23

    There are plenty of other examples. As was previously noted, players often put a little uppercut in their swing after they settle. I see no reason to believe Heyward will be a perennial 20 HR guy. If you think so, please go develop real estate in Florida.

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    • Adam says:

      TK, I think you are correct, and there is an even better bit a data to back-up your point. Heyward’s flyball % this year is very low: 26.9%. His ground ball percentage is 54.3%. While many of those ground balls are hit very hard, barring the possibility of an incredibly fluke inside-the-park HR, none of those are going to ever be a HR. When he adds the slight uppercut, he’ll hit more fly balls and the HR numbers will go up. His HR/FB is already a very healthy 18.6%.

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