Buy Low on Jason Heyward

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’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:

Rk Player OPS+ Year Age
1 Ty Cobb 167 1907 20
2 Mel Ott 165 1929 20
3 Al Kaline 162 1955 20
4 Mickey Mantle 161 1952 20
5 Alex Rodriguez 160 1996 20
6 Ted Williams 160 1939 20
7 Rogers Hornsby 150 1916 20
8 Jimmie Foxx 148 1928 20
9 Dick Hoblitzell 143 1909 20
10 Frank Robinson 142 1956 20
11 Mel Ott 139 1928 19
12 Ken Griffey 135 1990 20
13 Sherry Magee 134 1905 20
14 Tony Conigliaro 133 1965 20
15 Jason Heyward 131 2010 20
16 Ty Cobb 131 1906 19
17 Vada Pinson 128 1959 20
18 Orlando Cepeda 125 1958 20
19 Stuffy McInnis 121 1911 20
20 Sherry Magee 121 1904 19
21 Willie Mays 120 1951 20
22 Claudell Washington 119 1975 20
23 Johnny Lush 118 1904 18
24 Johnny Bench 116 1968 20
25 Arky Vaughan 114 1932 20

Source: Baseball-Reference

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.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on and, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

30 Responses to “Buy Low on Jason Heyward”

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  1. Mario Mendoza says:

    Technically, the entire 1927 Yankees couldn’t legally buy a beer, either. :P

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  2. Dekker says:

    At the end of April, right before his shoulder injury, he had a .879 OPS and 7 homers (42 home run pace). He’ll be fine.

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  3. west says:

    He has a Greg Oden feel to him, where he looks and moves like an old man.

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  4. Kyle says:

    stop running articles about him! he cant be a buy low if you keep telling everyone

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    • west says:

      Happens every damn year, by the time the draft roles around, all of the “sleepers” are going high.

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    • jim says:

      don’t worry, rotographs is still a pretty well-kept secret, unless you roll with seriously hardcore people

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  5. Ben says:

    I live in Atlanta and looking at his swing by the end of last year he was just not the same player. He looked hurt and like it was just a lost season. I’m sure when (if) he’s fully healthy he will fix his swing and become the hitter he’s projected to become

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  6. Harley says:

    How high is he still a good buy low? If his ADP is 114 right now, you have to figure it will be in the 90s by the time drafts start. Is he worth it in the 7th, 8th or 9th round? How early is too early?

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    • Dale says:

      Personally (in the context of now, where every player is “in the best shape of his life” and there are no injury concerns), I would still venture a 6th round pick on him if there was no one that fell that I liked better. Last season he was a 4th round ADP as a 2nd year player. A two round drop for the injury/bust risk seems right.

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  7. Undocorkscrew says:

    It’s totally irrelevant, but I think aside from Matt Cain…….Heyward is the most boring MLB player alive. Not on the field, personality-wise……

    I hope he has a monster season though.

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  8. captainpyper says:

    no no no no…i like the Greg Oden comparison. Keep him slotted with all the bounce back candidates like Werth and Hart.

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  9. cpebbles says:

    Tired of hearing about his bad “luck” with BABIP. You pop up that many balls on the infield, your BABIP is always going to be awful.

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    • noseeum says:

      That’s why the article focuses on xBABIP. xBABIP takes popups, homers, line drives, grounders into account. Heyward’s xBABIP is way higher than his BABIP.

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      • cpebbles says:

        Except some forms of xBABIP do not take infield flyballs into account, and when you use one that does his xBABIP is .267. He didn’t get unlucky.

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  10. red one says:

    Is Heyward injury plagued, not in great shape or just growing into his body? In his time as a pro he has yet to complete a season without going on the DL . Hip, back and shoulder injuries are all troublesome signs to me. Many times these are chronic injuries that people never truly recover from but have to manage long term. Does Heyward fall into this category? In my league I have him in his option year, need to decide to let him play it out or extend him? Opinions?

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    • noseeum says:

      This isn’t something anyone can know at this point in Heyward’s career. You have to decide for yourself if he just ran into a string of injury bad luck or if he’ll always be brittle.

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    • Braves says:

      Including the minors, he’s never had a healthy professional season in his career. Injuries could ruin this guys career but he’s so off the charts talented, that he’s worth the risk.

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  11. razor says:

    Mike Stanton is three months younger and should be tied for 23rd on the list above based on his OPS+ in 2010. Plus, he followed that up with an OPS+ of 141 in 2011 at age 21.

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  12. Andy says:

    J Hey could be great. But watching him here in ATL last year mostly reminded me of Cliff Floyd.

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  13. OzzieGuillen says:

    I can’t imagine being able to draft Heyward as a sleeper in any draft. If anything, I think the public is still optimistic about him and will move him into overvalued territory.

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  14. Ben Cerutti says:

    “Also keep in mind that ZiPS, Bill James and Oliver don’t know that Heyward was taking cuts with a bad shoulder last year”

    Why would anyone assume that is true?

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  15. rotomaniac says:

    Excellent analysis.

    While I’m not going to predict a monster year, I see something like .290-28-91-11 and a move up to 5th or 6th in the lineup. The really good stuff happens later.

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  16. kid says:

    I’m legitimately worried that he can’t square up big league pitches. His 2011 batted-ball profile was hideous: Just 13% line drives, 22% (!) pop-ups and just 33% fly balls. 2010 was better, but not much – 2.03 GB/FB, just 27% fly balls. Maybe we can attribute some of that to shoulder worries but it doesn’t help that he has pretty severe tomahawk motion in his swing that naturally induces a lot of grounders. A guy hitting ground balls isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing but the low line drive rates (15.7% career) and high pop-up rates (15%) is gonna make it really tough to deliver a pretty batting average.

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  17. bigbopper says:

    We’re being offered Napoli for $20 for a $7 Heyward. Seems to good to be true for us but curious what the gang thinks. Love Naps but at that price, and off a career year, his #’s are likely to tighten up a bit…

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