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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.