A year ago, Jason Heyward was a fantasy baseball stud muffin. Heyward was coming off a rookie season in which he popped 18 home runs and batted .277/.393/.456 at age 20, tying him with Ty Cobb for the 15th best OPS+ ever for a hitter who qualified for the batting title but couldn’t legally buy a beer. But, after falling to a .227/.319/.389 triple-slash and 14 homers in 2011 while bothered by a bum shoulder, Heyward ranks 31st among outfielders (114th overall) in MockDraftCentral.com’s latest ADP rankings.
While Heyward did fall into some bad habits at the plate last year and has some durability concerns, this is a perfect time to buy low on a youthful outfielder with superstar potential. Here’s why.
He’s still really young
Heyward is coming off his age-21 season, having just turned 22 this past August. For comparison’s sake, the average age for hitters in the Low-A South Atlantic League (which Heyward aced at 18) was 21.4 in 2011. It’s easy to lose sight of Heyward’s age, considering that he has been in the majors for two years, stands 6-foot-5, 240 pounds and could probably grow a beard by noon if he shaved right now. But he’s younger than Dustin Ackley, Jemile Weeks, Paul Goldschmidt, Dee Gordon, Jason Kipnis and a host of other rookies who had successful debuts in 2011, and he’s younger than top-ranked prospects entering 2012 like Devin Mesoraco, Brett Jackson and Travis D’Arnaud.
With such an advanced plate approach and gargantuan numbers in the minors (he slashed .323/.408/.555 while rising from High-A to Triple-A as a teenager in 2009), Heyward reached the show years before most hitters do. Age plays a crucial rule in projecting a player’s long-term performance, and Heyward still has plenty of development time left before he reaches what are typically the peak years of a hitter’s career. He has been a well above-average hitter in the majors at an age when most players are in a short-season league, A-Ball or college. Can you imagine what he would have batted if he had been in the Carolina League or the Pac-12 over the past couple of years?
His rookie year was off-the-charts good
Heyward did it all offensively as a rookie: he showed superb plate discipline (a 14.6% walk rate), hit for power (a .179 Isolated Power) and didn’t punch out at an exorbitant rate (20.5 K%). You could make a strong argument that it was the most impressive performance for a batter under age 21 since The Kid took Seattle by storm back in 1990. Check out the company Heyward kept among under-21 hitters qualifying for the batting title:
If you’re keeping score at home, there are 13 Hall of Famers and two future first-ballot Hall of Famers on that list of 22 names. Heyward’s year wasn’t in the same realm as Ott, Mantle or A-Rod, but he outdid Willie Mays, Hank Aaron (outside of the top 25 with a 103 OPS+) and Johnny Bench, among many others, and kept company with Junior Griffey. Simply put, players who dominate the competition at such a young age often end up in Cooperstown, not benched in favor of Jose Constanza.
With a bad shoulder and back luck, he still held his own in 2011
There’s no disputing that Heyward was frustrating to watch at times in 2011. He swung at more pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (28.3%, compared to 23.3% in 2010), which led to a dip in his walk rate (11.2 BB%). With a 21.8 percent infield fly ball rate, he hit the ball up the elevator shaft more often than any batter with at least 400 plate appearances. And he continued to hit far too many ground balls (nearly 54 percent of the time he put it in play), limiting his power output (.162 ISO).
But consider this for a moment: despite those negatives, despite Heyward dealing with a lingering right shoulder injury and despite a 75 point drop in his batting average on balls in play (from .335 to .260), Heyward was still basically a league-average hitter in 2011. Everything that could go wrong did, yet he held his own at age 21.
Even with the extra outside swings, pop ups and grounders, Heyward was likely the victim of some bad bounces. His expected BABIP (xBABIP), which is based on home runs, strikeouts, stolen bases, and batted ball data, was about .315. If Heyward were coming off a .270/.365/.445-type season instead, you can bet he wouldn’t be getting drafted behind guys like Corey Hart and Jayson Werth.
For a big man, he can run a little
While he’s never going to be a big stolen base threat, he’s a quality athlete for a power forward-sized corner outfielder. Heyward managed to nab nine bases in 11 tries last year, and Bill James projects he’ll have 14 SB in 2012. Double-digit steals is a nice perk for a guy with potentially elite OBP and power numbers.
His 2012 projections are strong
With the exception of ZiPS, the projection systems (and the fans) see Heyward as more of a .270 hitter with a high OBP and 20-homer power in 2012:
ZiPS: .255/.360/.427, 17 HR
Bill James: .269/.374/.457, 21 HR
Oliver: .273/.367/.475, 19 HR
The Fans: .279/.378/.468, 21 HR
Also keep in mind that ZiPS, Bill James and Oliver don’t know that Heyward was taking cuts with a bad shoulder last year; they just see a young guy who struggled after a fantastic rookie year. Granted, we can’t just assume that Heyward will stay healthy from here on out (he had a thumb injury as a rookie and had some minor hip and shin ailments before that), but those are conservative projections if he does come to camp with a mended shoulder.
It may sound strange, but in a way Heyward’s 2011 season is actually a testament to his supreme ability. How many hitters (much less 21-year-old hitters) could manage a league-average batting line in the majors while injured and watching so many balls put in play gravitate toward gloves? Heyward does need to keep the ball of the grass and pare down the pop ups to truly tap into his power, but it’s important to remember that he’s still younger than many celebrated rookies and prospects. With better luck, health and a little more development, Heyward could be a monster in 2012.