It’s hard not to fall in love with the fantasy potential of Jason Heyward, especially for those of us who can’t forget the can’t-miss hype surrounding his debut and a rookie season that seemed like the precursor to imminent superstardom. So it’s difficult to shake the tinge of disappointment that’s come to hang around Heyward in the past couple of years, not necessarily because he’s done anything wrong — he is, after all, just 25 years old and boasts a career .345 wOBA — but because in him we see fantasy studliness, and can’t help but feel let down each year when he falls short of making good on his immense potential.
As such, it’s hard to decide what to make of Heyward’s 2014 season, in which he finished 34th among outfielders in Zach Sanders’ rankings, as he made strides as a contact hitter while taking a step back in the power department. Depending on one’s point of view, it was an effort that was either an improvement in his development as a still-young hitter or a disturbing blight on his future value.
For instance, Heyward, batting primarily in the leadoff spot for the first time in his career, put up a solid .351 OBP, scored 74 runs and stole 20 bases at an impressive 83% success rate, all while batting .271, the second-best mark of his big league tenure. His plate discipline improved as well, as he set a new career best with a 15.1% strikeout rate, fueled by his best SwStr% and Contact% rates yet. Interestingly, although Heyward swung less frequently than in any season since his 2010 debut, he finished with a 10.3% walk rate that’s below his career average and set a new personal low for pitches per plate appearance.
But the power was largely absent. Heyward’s .113 ISO was no less than 71 points below his career mark entering this year, he slugged just .384 and notched only 58 RBIs, despite making about one-third of his plate appearances as the fifth hitter in the Braves’ order. All this before you look at his 11 home runs, easily a career low, less than the 14 he put up in two separate seasons when he averaged just 448 plate appearances.
Just to be clear, this isn’t a matter of Heyward trading fly balls for line drives; his batted ball distribution, including his GB/FB rate, has stayed remarkably steady over the past three seasons, a period that includes his 2012 campaign in which he bashed a career-high 27 home runs.
Instead, Heyward’s dinger deficiency has been the byproduct of some ominous declines:
What’s changed? For one thing, pitchers have shied away from trying to bust Heyward inside, and instead are focusing on trying to get him to chase pitches away. With an acknowledgment to the variance in sample size, we can compare the pitch locations of his 2014 against his first four big league seasons:
As you might have guessed, that’s bad news for Heyward, who, like many left-handed hitters, does his best work when he’s able to feast on balls down and in. Now, increasingly deprived of opportunities to pull pitches, Heyward in recent years has been going the other way more often, and 2014 saw more than 19% of his plate appearances end with him hitting the ball to the opposite field, a new career high, and a credible explanation for the plunge in distance and home runs.
Heyward’s value also wasn’t helped by a Braves’ lineup that finished among baseball’s worst in wOBA and runs scored, and if the Braves were to move Evan Gattis this winter to make room for Christian Bethancourt, the lineup likely would only be weaker in 2015. Meanwhile, the team is likely stuck with big contracts for the likes of B.J. Upton, Chris Johnson and Andrelton Simmons, and it’s worth noting that Justin Upton — and Heyward too, for that matter — will be a free agent after next year, leaving open the possibility that the Braves could move him if the team decides to rebuild.
Where does all this leave the J-Hey Kid? Again, the talent is too much to ignore, and the increased contact and stolen bases are encouraging signs for a guy who still has at least a season or two to go before truly entering what should be the peak years of his career. But there’s real doubt about his ability to deliver even 15 home runs or produce high amounts of runs and RBIs in that lineup, regardless of where he hits. Heyward remains a tempting upside guy on draft day, but it’s hard to bid on him too far beyond the price tag of a No. 3 outfielder who has yet to prove he’s a reliable high-end fantasy option.
Karl, a journalist living in Washington, D.C., learned about life's disappointments by following the Mets beginning at a young age. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he has contributed to the 2014 and 2015 editions of The Hardball Times Annual. Follow/harass him on Twitter @Karl_de_Vries.