Jason Heyward: Different, But Still Really Good

Jason Heyward hit the big leagues in 2010 as a 20-year-old prodigy, but also with a skillset that is more commonly found among players in their mid-thirties. Heyward drew 92 walks in his rookie year — the most by any player in their age 20 season since Ted Williams drew 107 back in 1939 — and succeeded at the plate with an extremely patient approach, something you just don’t generally find at that age. Because of his selective approach, Heyward was an instant star even with just average contact rates and slightly above average power.

However, Heyward’s success didn’t carry over to 2011, as he struggled with injuries and his BABIP fell 75 points, cutting the legs out from under his batting average. While he was still drawing walks, the moderate power wasn’t offsetting the outs he was making, and his sophomore season was a pretty big step backwards for the Braves right fielder. Instead of comparisons to The Splendid Splinter, Heyward was starting to draw whispers of guys like Ben Grieve.

The first two months of 2012 brought more of the same, as he ended May hitting .233/.327/.413. He was still drawing walks, but he was making contact at the lowest rate of his career and still not hitting for a lot of power. After his early career brilliance, Heyward had racked up 600 mediocre plate appearances, and the questions about his ability to produce at a high level were only growing louder.

Then came June. For the last 24 days, Heyward has been a monster at the plate, and a totally different kind of monster than he’s ever been before. In 72 trips to the plate, he has 14 extra base hits and has only drawn three walks, leading to an un-Heyward-like .391/.417/.754 batting line for the month. That’s something you’d expect from Josh Hamilton or an on-fire Adam Jones, not the most selective young hitter we’ve seen come along in a couple of generations.

However, Heyward is beginning to evolve as a player. The trends in his plate discipline stats are hard to ignore.

Swing Percentage:

2010: 38.5%
2011: 43.7%
2012: 45.8%

Contact Percentage:

2010: 79.3%
2011: 77.2%
2012: 73.8%

Heyward is swinging at more pitchers than ever before, and the uptick in his O-Swing% is dramatic — after swinging at just 23.5% of pitches outside the zone in 2010, that’s up to 32.0% this year. Heyward is unquestionably more aggressive at the plate now than he has been in prior years, and that’s been true since the start of the year. He didn’t suddenly become more aggressive in June — he just started hitting strikes.

Here is his rate of contact on pitches in the strike zone by month this year:

April: 73.1%
May: 75.8%
June: 87.8%

Heyward’s been working with a more aggressive approach all season, but in the first two months of the year, he was drawing walks because he was swinging through strikes and getting in deeper counts, although not the way you usually want to get into deeper counts. In June, those at-bats are ending with a ball getting ripped into the gaps or over the wall, because there’s one other thing that Heyward has changed significantly – his batted ball profile.

In his first two years of his career, Heyward hit 54% of his balls in play on the ground, but this year, that’s down to 39%. For an example, take a look at his swing on the second home run he hit against the Yankees last week:

The first home run was all location, as he got a pitch up at his shoulders and got around on it, but that second home run is not a ball that Heyward would have gotten in the air in previous years. It’s a slider down and away from lefty specialist Boone Logan, but he gets the barrel of the bat down and is still able to get under the ball, pulling it to right center field with authority. That ball probably isn’t a home run in every park, but that’s a pitch that was designed to get a ground ball or a swinging strike, and Heyward was able to get his bat on it and get some loft under it, which is just not something he’s done previously.

Instead of remaining a high walk groundball hitter, Heyward has morphed into a more aggressive fly ball hitter, and his season line is now even better than the one he posted in his rookie season of 2010. While ideally you’d like to see Heyward both hit for power and draw walks at the same time, the Braves have to be encouraged that Heyward is showing that he can hit for more power than he’s shown since his first two months in the big leagues. You don’t really have to worry about his plate discipline too much, as there’s no question that he has the ability to recognize the difference between a ball and a strike and understands the value of taking walks when necessary. That he’s having success with a more aggressive approach doesn’t mean he’s going to turn into Jeff Francouer, but it does mean that pitchers won’t be able to keep challenging him and getting away with it like they were in the first two months of the season.

Heyward has already shown an ability to control the strike zone. Now, he’s showing the ability to hit the ball in the air with regularity, and hit for power even on pitches down in the strike zone. Most 22-year-olds haven’t figured out how to put their game together, and Heyward is no different in that regard, but he’s flashing skills that show legitimate superstar potential when he does finally combine his entire skillset into one solid approach at the plate. Right now, Heyward is tinkering, but he’s finding success with that tinkering. When he no longer has to tinker, look out.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


27 Responses to “Jason Heyward: Different, But Still Really Good”

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  1. T! says:

    Seeing baseballs get crushed by Jason Heyward is the best thing a Braves fan could possibly see.

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  2. Brian Snyder says:

    Love the article. Would you mind doing on Freddie Freeman or BMac and figuring out what change has occurred there?

    Seeing this out of Heyward is awesome though, with Simmons coming up and hitting like he is, this Brave lineup has offensive potential that we havent seen in some time. (Its just sad it comes at the same time as a drastic pitching falloff)

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  3. Brandon says:

    His dinger yesterday was another offering low and away.

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  4. crimsonqueen9 says:

    As a Braves fan, his aggression is so welcome. It seemed like he had been taking a ton of called strikes trying to be patient and get walks, and obviously when you’re taking strikes with extra frequency, good things aren’t going to happen. He’s enormously strong and can barrel up balls with the best of them, so more contact logically seems like a good thing.

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  5. UKJaysFan says:

    I’m going to check all the Jays players to see if we got some Georgia boys that we can trade to ATL for Heyward!

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    • JT Grace says:

      Ha!!! Not happening. JHey is a Georgia boy that is staying home where he belongs.

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      • UKJaysFan says:

        Dang! I guess we’ll just have to wait for rumblings of laziness, lack of hustle, or showboating then. :)

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      • JT Grace says:

        You’re probably out of luck there too. Jason is a class act all around. However, you can have this thick lug named Juan Francisco, he is all of that and more (lazy, showboats, etc.).

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      • Anon21 says:

        I don’t think Francisco is lazy, I think he’s just terrible. Jays are definitely welcome to him, though.

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    • Howie says:

      Are Jays fans still losing their minds over the Escobar trade? How’s that .279 wOBA and 72 wRC+ treating you guys?

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      • Anon21 says:

        Well, in 2011 they did get .345/116 with decent defense at shortstop. And even this year, he’s playing good defense. So I guess it’s treating them okay?

        And even it wasn’t, did Wren have to sell him at the absolute nadir of his value? I maintain that he did not.

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  6. Phantom Stranger says:

    He’s definitely changed his approach at the plate. Most people credit that to Chipper Jones, whom Heyward went to after realizing his original approach was not working (600 PAs with little power will do that to you).

    Saying that, I still think his current swing mechanics greatly limit his power. He’s one of the biggest and strongest men in MLB, he should be able to generate even more power than what we have seen so far. Even his homeruns are not the cannon shots a person with his leverage should generate. With the right hitting coach he could pull a Jose Bautista on the league and become a 40 to 50 homer guy.

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    • CabreraDeath says:

      “With the right hitting coach he could pull a Jose Bautista on the league and become a 40 to 50 homer guy.”

      There are several things wrong with this statement, in my eyes.

      1) You are assuming that a) such a hitting coach exists, b) that a hitting coach has that much influence, and c) that Heyward could ‘adopt the recipe’ prescribed by said hitting coach. All three are faulty assumptions.

      2) Becoming a 40-50 HR guy is no easy task. Becoming a Jose Bautista is no easy task. Heyward and Bautista (to put it lightly) are two pretty different players – making all comps rather silly.

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      • BananananaHamels says:

        1) YOU are assuming that a) such a hitting coach DOES NOT exist b) that a hitting coach DOES NOT have that much influence c) that Heyward CANNOT ‘adopt the recipe.’ All three are faulty assumptions.

        See how easy that is? You attempt to disprove his ‘assumptions’ with assumptions of your own backed on zero evidence.

        2) Becoming President isn’t easy. Winning the lotto isn’t easy. THEREFORE BOTH MUST BE IMPOSSIBLE, ESPECIALLY FOR DUMB, LAZY JASON HEYWARD. Fluke seasons happen. Adapting to the league in your low 20’s can happen. PED’s can happen. Any thing can happen.

        He didn’t comp Jose Bautista and Jason Heyward. He used Joeys Bat as a verb symbolizing a possible change in Heyward’s game that would allow him to hit more dingerz.

        You’re reading comprehension skills are pretty subpar- making you’re repsonse rather silly.

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      • Phantom Stranger says:

        He had massive holes in his swing that other teams were regularly exploiting before his latest string of hitting in the past month. Heyward has gotten better at hitting the outside pitch, particularly against righties. From how his swing had looked, I think he needed to drop an ounce on his bat.

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  7. JT Grace says:

    Great article. I know that Bobby Cox was preaching for Jason to be more aggressive during his rookie year. It’s too bad that JHey now plays for a nincompoop manager who actually thinks it’s a good idea to platoon him. At least the Braves did hire a good hitting coach who has gotten through to the young slugger. Now the nincompoop just needs to move Jason out of the #7 hitting spot so he can be in a position to drive in more runs.

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    • craigws says:

      greg walker is not a good hitting coach. he ruined gordon beckham.

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      • Anon21 says:

        Maybe he’s good for Heyward but not Beckham? We know so little about coaching and its effects, it seems plausible a coach could really help one guy fix a certain type of problem while exacerbating some other guy’s different problem.

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      • JT Grace says:

        If you think Greg Walker is a bad hitting coach then you ought to have Larry Parrish for a season. He is horrible.

        Also, the Braves also have Scott Fletcher as a secondary hitting coach so it isn’t just walker.

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  8. adam says:

    Thank you for the good article. I really hope that Jason can turn it around. Baseball progression isn’t as linear as other sports , especially for someone so young. Maybe an article on some more young hitter or pitchers? Jarrod Parker?

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  9. bstar says:

    Seeing Heyward still stuck in the 7 hole in the batting lineup grows more infuriating with every successive game. Slow to jump on the bandwagon of Fredi Gonzalez haters, his inability to see that Jason Heyward is now the best hitter in his lineup is driving me crazy.

    Thanks for the article, Dave; I would add also that Heyward has gotten so good in right field that I don’t think there’s even a question he’s the best defensive RF in the National League right now.

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  10. Antonio Bananas says:

    Next article should be over how many runs the Braves missed out on by having Heyward hit 7th. SPEDi Gonzalez doesn’t understand how averages work. If a guy goes from .234 (or whatever) to .255, Freddi doesn’t realize that he had to be hitting pretty well to do that. He still stupidly just sees “.255″. In fact, average seems to be one of the primary things Freddi looks at.

    Actually, scratch all that, let’s just do an article over how much better Atlanta would be if Freddi wasn’t an idiot.

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    • bstar says:

      Yeah, Antonio, at least we’ve got Freddie Freeman moved from the 3 to the 5 hole. We’re halfway there; now just flip-flop them, Fredi, and that will get Heyward at least up to 5th. I’m personally tired of waiting for McCann to come around, so go ahead and then flip-flop he and Heyward and put Brian fifth:

      Bourn
      Prado
      Heyward
      Uggla
      McCann
      Chip
      Freeman
      Simmons(or put Simmons seventh and FF 8th)

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      • David says:

        By “tired of waiting for McCann to come around” you mean use the same small sample size determinations Fredi does to make his lineup? His BABIP is absurdly low and well beneath his career marks: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphs.aspx?playerid=4810&position=C&page=7&type=full

        So I suppose if McCann hits sixth for the next month and he happens to “come around” during that time you’ll withhold your criticism?

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      • Josh says:

        @David – Granted, McCann’s stats are a small sample size, but that’s not the same SSS that Fredi determines to make a lineup. Point in case: the Diaz 5 for 9 against Sabathia example. What I have noticed (and what others fail to mention) is how quick he was to banish Heyward to the bottom of the order last season based on a SSS, but now is steadfast to move him up (or, move Freeman). Personally, I’m not in favor of the change due to the small sample size, but rather that Heyward was the better candidate for the 3 or 5 spots all along and now his performance is finally showing that.

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  11. Jaik Jarrkjens says:

    I often compare Heyward with Giancarlo Stanton – both came up at around the same time, both play right field for NL East teams, they were born within three months of each other, and they were the top two prospects in the minors before coming up. It’s interesting how, in their current states of evolution, they’re pretty much the same player despite being so different when they were in the minors; Heyward was the high walk, low strikeout, mediocre power hitter, while Stanton was the mediocre walk, high strikeout, high power hitter. Now, both are walking in around 9% of their plate appearances, striking out in 23 – 25% of their plate appearances, and ISOing .230-.250. The main difference in their WAR this season comes from Heyward’s superior defense and baserunning, though Stanton has been rated as a similarly solid fielder in the past.

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  12. kevin berg says:

    Dave,

    Do you really believe that says Heyward is basically best base runner and defensive player in the NL

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