Jason Heyward Still Providing Value

In baseball, as in life, perspective is crucial. In terms of the terribly struggling Atlanta Braves offense, Jason Heyward‘s 79 wRC+ is merely one issue among many, because this is a team that’s also rolling out Ryan Doumit (34 wRC+), Dan Uggla (40), B.J. Upton (68) and Chris Johnson (also 79) on a semi-regular or more basis. When the entire offense is so wretched that as a team, their .302 OBP — and yes, I have filtered out the pitchers, so this is only the guys actually paid to hit — is No. 28 in baseball, it’s hard to single out the guy who’s been more “meh” than “flaming poisonous tire fire” when there’s more than one of the latter around.

In terms merely of Jason Heyward, who debuted at 20 with hype commensurate to Bryce Harper, homered in his first plate appearance, and is the owner of seasons of 4.6 and 6.4 WAR, this can only be seen as a huge disappointment. That 79 wRC+ is equal or essentially so to Curtis Granderson and Carlos Santana, each hitting under .200; to Allen Craig, who has looked like he’s playing a different sport; to Eric Young, who is inexplicably getting playing time over Juan Lagares; to Chris Colabello, all but assured of a minor league stint in his future.

There’s no shortage of theories as to why that is, of course. He’s striking out more than last year, but less than in 2010-12. His .258 BABIP could indicate some amount of bad luck. He’s hitting more balls in the air, which generally leads to fewer hits, but less of them are leaving the park than usual. There’s some talk that he’s had trouble with high pitches, and maybe that’s true; he has just four hits all year off such pitches. For his part, Heyward can only offer some platitudes about consistency.

But there’s also this: Heyward’s defense at the moment is rated as being so valuable that not only is he (by some measures) the most important defensive player in baseball, he’s still on pace for a nearly 6 WAR season.

The usual caveats here, of course, and you already know all of them. It’s less than two months of data, and defensive metrics are imperfect even over a full year of data. I think we all know that and know enough not to place the utmost certainty on these, but I also think that sometimes the rush tends to be to dismiss imperfect results and tossing out all of the information without even a cursory look at it, and that’s unfair. Eight weeks or so of baseball aren’t enough to draw irrefutable concrete conclusions; they aren’t nothing, either.

It’s especially so in Heyward’s case, because it’s not like he went from being Raul Ibanez to Gerardo Parra overnight — he’s always been seen as a very good outfielder. Since 2011, he has three of the 23 outfielder seasons with 15 or more Defensive Runs Saved, despite several injuries of varying severity that have limited his playing time. Overall, he’s DRS’ second-best outfielder to Alex Gordon in that span, despite nearly 1,000 fewer innings. By UZR/150, he’s the best. Feel free to quibble with the numbers themselves, but the general theory of “Heyward is and has been a very good defensive outfielder” is pretty clear.

But what’s particularly interesting is just how much the numbers like him this year. Heyward had 15 or 16 DRS in 2010, 2011, and 2013, along with 20 in 2012. He’s got 16 already in 358.2 innings; in his previous four years, he accumulated that in 861.2 to 1355.2 innings. He’s on pace for over 40 DRS this year; in the DRS era, only Parra has ever done that. And sure, part of that is because he can do things like this:

…and this:

But it’s also because he gets to the easy and somewhat less-easy ones, too. You can see it on his Inside Edge fielding chart. The few balls he’s missed this year were all but impossible to get to…


…and a single game is all it took for his manager to regret resting Heyward and putting the lead-footed Doumit in right:

“When you make all the plays – I’m not talking about highlight plays – pitchers don’t have big innings (go against them),” Gonzalez said. “You boot the ball, then all of a sudden they have to use 8, 10, 12 more pitches to get out of that inning. Now instead of them going into the sixth, they’re out in the fifth. Or they can’t get into the seventh, because it takes them an extra 10 pitches to get out of an inning. And not necessarily having errors – it’s ball that drop in, and you go, man, a good right fielder… We’ve got the best right fielder in the game, I’m just thinking a good right fielder would have caught that ball.

The uptick in stats is perhaps in some small way due to the the Braves pitching staff, who — among other changes — have replaced Tim Hudson with Aaron Harang, leading to a two percentage point difference in GB/FB rates as compared to last year. It’s not much, but it’s something, worth expounding fewer than 30 words on, anyway: more balls to the outfield means more balls to act on. And that’s what this all really seems to be — small things that add up to improvement, because there’s not one particular item you can point to in order to explain Heyward’s defensive uptick. He’s healthy, after last year’s broken jaw and appendectomy. His pitching staff is allowing slightly more flies. He’s still only 24, and already has a track record of excellent defense. This didn’t exactly come out of nowhere.

But still: the offense. I said earlier that Heyward was on pace for “nearly 6 WAR,” and the actual number is 5.8. Since 2000, we have 192 seasons of 5.8 WAR or higher, from three ridiculous Barry Bonds years at the top to the inexplicable high points of Rickie Weeks and Corey Koskie at the bottom. It’s always a bit fraught with peril to merely extrapolate current stats out for the remainder of the season, as though we assume nothing about Heyward will change from May 19. They certainly will, and so the following is for entertainment value only: No one in this century has come close to putting together a season that valuable with offense this inept. Remember, Heyward’s wRC+ is 79. No one has had a 5.8 WAR season with a wRC+ below 100; only three (Machado, 2013/101; Franklin Gutierrez, 2009/104, Michael Bourn, 2012/105) have even been below 112. Going back to only 2000 not good enough? Going back to 1930, only Devon White‘s 1992 (93 wRC+) is under 100, and that’s still not close to Heyward.

Again, defensive stats aren’t perfect. We saw Jeff examine Andrelton Simmons‘ seemingly “down” season just a few days ago, and come away with the idea that there’s really nothing at all wrong with Simmons. Heyward has always been a good outfielder, and he’s at least squarely in the argument for the best defensive outfielder in baseball. That’s not the same as being the best defensive outfielder any of us have ever seen, as the numbers might indicate he’s on pace to do; I might still take “the field” between now and October as far as who ends up being seen as the best defensive outfielder. But it does go back to the argument advanced stats subscribers have long had and specifically had in the Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera MVP discussions: defense matters. It matters a lot. And when you’re as good at it as Jason Heyward is, it can cover up a lot of other woes. Heyward might be hitting .215 and terribly disappointing everyone this year with the bat, but don’t let anyone pretend he’s hurting the team in the same way Uggla is. The fact that Heyward is a different kind of valuable this year doesn’t negate the fact that he is, still, terrifically valuable.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

34 Responses to “Jason Heyward Still Providing Value”

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  1. LHPSU says:

    > because it’s not like he went from being Raul Ibanez to Gerardo Parra overnight
    Funny you mentioned that, because by UZR Gerardo Parra has been closer to Raul Ibanez than Gerardo Parra. Currently 55th of 67 in UZR/150.

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  2. Travis says:

    It’s also worth nothing how good of a baserunner he’s been. Going by UBR, he’s been the best baserunner in baseball over the last three years.

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    • Capatian Obvious. says:

      That certainly seems worth more than nothing.

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    • Ron Boone says:

      This hayward is not even a AA propect. At the MLB level, a defensive replacement at the very best.

      Otherwise he is WORTHLESS to the Braves.

      They MUST TRADE him ASAP to get somethng decent in return, he’s another LOUSY hitter,the Braves do not need !!!!

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  3. Emcee Peepants says:

    It might be important to note, that while you do say that the Braves FB% has increased by 2%, the HR/FB% has decreased from 9.4% to 7.8% and the IFFB% has decreased from 9.6% to 8.1% so are more FB that are either staying in play or reaching the outfield than just that 2% overall uptick might indicate. I don’t think that takes away any from what he has done, just something I noticed.

    Also, how did Corey Koskie average 5.2 WAR from 2001-2003?!

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  4. Brian says:

    Great piece. Good contextual info for those of us who already know Heyward is great; and perhaps an eye opener for people who didn’t realize.

    But… Honestly… What on earth is wrong with Heyward at the plate? I have been asking and looking everywhere and there are no answers. He’s about a mile off the plate with a really funky closed stance, but nobody has tackled it.


    Here’s a video of a very young J Hey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgIBU2jMMDs

    Here’s his first HR, strong, fast, down: http://m.mlb.com/video/v7282459/chcatl-heyward-hits-a-threerun-home-run/?c_id=mlb

    Here’s a recent swing, he’s all closed off and divey: http://m.mlb.com/video/v32368959/cinatl-heyward-drives-in-simmons-with-a-single/?c_id=mlb

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    • Mike Petriello says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      I don’t have any idea if this is true, but this was tweeted at me:

      ” RT @Jus10_P3 @mike_petriello Heyward bouncing back at the plate last few days after switching back to his 2012, 2013 batting stance…”

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    • Andy says:

      I’m glad you mentioned how far he is off the plate. Every time I watch him hit, I have no clue how he could ever come remotely close to a pitch on the outside corner.

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      • Trevvz says:

        That would make sense. His O-Contact % this season has been 59.1% TY compared to 72% last season and mid 60s prior to that.

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      • Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

        He’s extremely long-limbed and can still reach the outside corner, and beyond, with ease. His problem is that he tries to pull those pitches. Heyward’s best-documented hole in his swing is on pitches up and in. By moving that far off the plate, he’s moving at least part of that hole into a place where that pitch is called a ball. It’s his diving at the ball that’s preventing him from producing a swing to drive balls the other way.

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      • WAR am I? says:

        If you look at his heat map, he actually hits much better on pitches away than he does on pitches in. This year, he has a really weird cold zone right down the middle, but overall, he hits pitches away better than he hits pitches in.

        I have wondered if it is because he lunges toward the plate, as someone mentioned earlier. I could see how that could cause him to pull more away pitches and struggle getting the bat to inside and up pitches. But I haven’t analyzed anything, just seemed a plausible theory.

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  5. vivalajeter says:

    When it comes to the Trout vs Cabrera MVP argument, you’re right that it goes to back to the advanced stat subscribers argument. Defense matters (and so does baserunning). But this also goes back to the traditional stat subscribers argument as well, because let’s face it – this is a good example of how outlier defense stats can skew WAR.

    Heyward is certainly more valuable than you’d expect him to be based solely on his hitting numbers. But only 3 OF eclipsed 5.8 WAR last year (and a 4th, Ellsbury, had 5.8 on the dot). Based on Heyward’s actual performance, would anybody reasonably say he’s a top 3-4 OF in the game? Is he even close, when he’s batting in the low .200’s with an OBP/SLG in the low .300’s? That tells me that although WAR is useful, there are still some quirks. I can’t get my head around RF defense being that valuable, to the point where a bad hitter is suddenly a superstar.

    That’s probably what the traditionalists thought about Cabrera/Trout. I would have easily voted for Trout, but Heyward’s WAR doesn’t pass the smell test for me, and I guess Trout’s didn’t pass the smell test for the Bob Ryan’s of the world.

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    • asdf says:

      Data doesn’t confirm original hypothesis? Just throw it out!

      I think this is why tools like WAR are awesome. It lets us compare apples and apples. Traditionalists know that Trout is a friggin awesome baseball player. Saber folks love Cabrera, too. The difference is that we can actually quantify how big of a difference Mike Trout’s OF defense and lack of GIDP actually make.

      So rather than just throwing away WAR because it doesn’t agree with your eyeball test (“Heyward isn’t top 5 OF in the game”), maybe instead let the data influence your conclusions. Tulo isn’t Barry Bonds, but he’s been playing like it for the past 2 months. Heyward isn’t a 6-WAR player on defense-and-crappy-offense, but for hte past 2 months, he’s played like it.

      Don’t hate, appreciate.

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      • asdf says:

        The asterisk is… absolutely all these numbers have error bars. The error bars on defensive metrics are much larger than other places because we aren’t actually super great at measuring individual defensive performance. Even if you think Heyward’s DRS numbers aren’t accurate, cut them in half and they’re still impressive and he’s still been an above-average member of the Braves (still without hitting).

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        • vivalajeter says:

          Your asterisk is more of my point, rather than the “Throw it out!” argument. As bad as he’s been with the bat, I think it’s possible that he’s an above-average player with elite defense. I don’t think he’s a 6 WAR player though.

          You shouldn’t automatically throw out data that doesn’t support the eye test, but you should look into the inputs and see if they make sense. If someone is an average baserunner for his whole career and then suddenly he’s +15 runs, what led to that? If they’re a solid defender who’s suddenly one of the best of all time, did he really improve that much or is it noise?

          I haven’t watched Heyward play more than a few games this year, but I have a hard time believing that he saves almost a run every other game compared to an average RF. Maybe Upton is shading to left center more than most CF, so Heyward has more out of zone opportunities in the Right CF gap that most RF defer to the CF for, or maybe the Braves are giving up a much greater-than-average number of fly balls to RF. I don’t know. But when a number is that extreme, I don’t take it at face value. Just sort by UZR/150 and look at the spread between Heyward and the rest of the guys.

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        • asdf says:

          I agree with you in your main premise, but also think you’re mixing up an attempt at describing a historical narrative vs describing true talent level.

          True talent: Nobody is saying Heyward will put up 60 DRS and that he is a true talent 6-win defender. That has literally never even come close to happening.

          But did he provide ~1.5 wins on RF defense alone through the months of April-May? The caveats you mentioned don’t argue against it. Is Upton shading further to LF? Awesome. That means Upton is covering more ground to LF, and other Upton can cheat more towards the LF line. A lesser RF would not allow that to happen.

          More opportunities? Great. He has converted the important plays and made the most of his more difficult chances. I do agree a great deal of the distribution of opportunities is luck-based, and therefore probably isn’t very predictively valuable, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s made the plays.

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        • Steven says:

          There are some differences between defensive and offensive statistics, but you do see the same inflated offensive stats for players over a year or less sample. Adam LaRoche and Seth Smith have two of the best wRC+ stats, but that doesn’t mean it is their true talent. Hanley Ramirez hit just as well as Cabrera last year (191 wRC+ v. 192), but that doesn’t mean it is his true talent.

          ALL statistics need to be seen in their proper context, not just defensive and base running ones.

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    • Johnston says:

      “A run saved is just as valuable as a run scored.”

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    • LONNIE says:

      Good points Vil. Despite his projected WAR in no-way is Heyward having that good of a season. The defense is carrying too much weight when a player can do as poorly as Heyward and still possibly reach 5.8 WAR. The numbers really don’t add up in this case.

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    • TKDC says:

      Well, he’s actually 11th in WAR for outfielders. It’s a bit disingenuous to make an argument around a projection that the author clearly informed you was dicey at best.

      Are we throwing out Seth Smith and Charlie Blackmon’s first two months offensively, too, because they seem improbable?

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      • vivalajeter says:

        I’m confident that Blackmon hit 9 HR and stole 9 bases. I’m not confident that Heyward actually saved 16 runs more than an average RF would have saved. That’s my point – sometimes defense #’s skew WAR more than we can wrap our brains around, and that might be a reason that some old school voters wouldn’t trust WAR so much in the Trout/Cabrera discussion.

        The Braves have given up 137 runs this year. Would they really have given up almost 12% more runs if they had an average RF for the last month and a half? It’s fine if you think they would have – and that those 16 runs actually happened – but I just don’t trust it enough to take the number at face value.

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        • TKDC says:

          Well, you don’t actually know how many runs Blackmon created on offense over a replacement player, either, right? You have what happened on the field and what that general means.

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  6. Emcee Peepants says:

    The argument could be made that if he has really prevented 16 runs this season, putting those runs on the board would put the +1 run differential Braves in last place rather than first. That’s pretty valuable (and I strongly dislike Heyward and all his hype).

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  7. Phantom Stranger says:

    Heyward is the best defensive RF in the game but this high of a dWar rating seems like a statistical artifact more than a true reflection of his value.

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    • Steven says:

      Everyone agrees that he won’t continue his current pace, but that doesn’t mean his dWAR isn’t a “true reflection” of what he has done so far. Seth Smith has a 191 wRC+ right now, and that number is a “true reflection” of what he has done. We just don’t expect him to continue at this rate. Similarly, even if Heyward has seen an inordinate number of opportunities, he has actually produced at this rat even if he won’t continue to keep his current pace.

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      • jorgesca says:

        Yeah but WRC+ is a rate statistic, dWAR is a counting stat and awarded by someone’s perception. I don’t like how it can skew WAR that much given it’s unreliability.

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  8. Satoshi Nakamoto says:

    I’ve always thought he needs to quiet his stance at the plate.
    See how he bobs up and down as the pitch is delivered?
    And as he goes to take a swing he bends down at the same time, changing his view of the ball.
    Might make it harder to square it up when you drop 3 inches as you’re swinging.

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  9. A Happy Braves Fan says:

    After last night Heyward’s WRC+ is up to 87. He simularly started off slowly last year and still managed to finish with a WRC+ of 120 for the season. Heward will be fine, especially if he stays healthy.

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  10. Johnston says:

    Does anyone besides me think that it looks odd that so many of the Braves are hitting so poorly?

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