Injuries Ravage Jason Heyward’s Season

Or stated more accurately, both injuries and a surprise medical procedure hampered Jason Heyward’s season. After coming off a year in which Heyward was the 10th most valuable outfielder, he was limited to just 440 plate appearances as he dealt with a spate of health related issues. While actually on the field, he was still a bit of a disappointment to fantasy owners, especially to the many who figured an MVP-type season with mammoth offensive production was in the cards. Unfortunately, the health and fantasy Gods were not on his side this time.

As soon as the season began, Heyward dealt with right shoulder soreness, something he suffered from in 2011 that also killed his offense. We didn’t hear of any more soreness since, which either meant that it was a minor issue or that he kept it quiet. Only a couple of weeks later, Heyward underwent a surprise appendectomy that caused him to miss nearly a month. We still don’t know a whole lot about how a hitter should be expected to perform after returning from such a procedure, however Jeff Zimmerman did take a stab at it several years ago. The population of players he studied was rather small, but he found little impact on performance, suggesting that we cannot blame Heyward’s disappointing stat line on the surprise procedure.

Then in mid-July heading into the all-star break, Heyward suffered a right hamstring strain that did not require a disabled list stint. Heyward’s stolen base attempts were down significantly this year, but he was barely running before the strain as well. If that wasn’t enough torture, he was then hit in the face with a pitch in late August and fractured his jaw, which required surgery and kept him out of the lineup for another month. It was just one thing after another, from bad to worse.

But throughout all this, there were some positives. He cut down on his strikeout rate and boosted his Contact%, while his walk rate rebounded. His batted ball distance was only a couple of ticks below his marks in the previous two seasons, but he pulled the ball more often which typically should lead to more power. He also reduced his SwStk% and turned around a disturbing trend of two straight years of increasing rates.

Now for the bad news. Judging by his batted ball mix, his swing appears to be extremely inconsistent. In 2010 and 2011, he hit way too many fly balls. In 2011, he didn’t hit enough line drives. In 2011 and 2013, he hit too many pop-ups. His xBABIP marks over the past three seasons have been .310, .310 and .260, which is actually less inconsistent than I expected. It appears that the higher line drive rate in 2013 was enough to offset an IFFB% more than double his 2012 mark. Still, it’s a concern to come close to the league leader in IFFB%.

While I think that his HR/FB rate will rebound to at least his current career mark of 15.3%, the biggest question mark revolves around his stolen base output. What made him such a hot fantasy commodity was that he was a potential five-category contributor with 30/20 upside. If we extrapolate his plate appearances this season to the same he recorded in 2012, he would have attempted just 9 steals this year, well below his 29 attempts of last year. Even worse, Heyward was only successful on two of his actual six attempts. So his steals plummeted from 21 to 2, completely killing off a category he had previously earned positive value in.

As I have discussed when reviewing other Braves hitters, the team simply did not run this year. They attempted just 95 steals this season after attempting 133 last year. This was even after the additions of base-stealers in Justin Upton and B.J. Upton and the return of Jordan Schafer who attempted 28 steals himself. The Braves had the same manager, but it’s possible that the addition of all this power made Fredi Gonzalez more reluctant to run. It’s anyone’s guess how frequently he’ll run next year and whether Heyward even reaches double digit attempts again.

At just 24 years of age, Heyward remains an alluring talent with strong plate discipline, good power and some speed. A major breakout could come at any time, but it’s likely that his stolen base total will be the deciding factor as to whether he disappoints his fantasy owners again or earns them a profit.

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Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Daniel
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I know there’s no good way to quantify this, but couldn’t the alarmingly high IFFB% be a simple question of timing at the plate? Normally you wouldn’t make too much of this for a single DL stint, even an extended one, but we’re talking multiple disruptions here. And it seems to me that popups are frequently the result of the batter being fooled by the speed of a pitch more than by its location.