At an age when most players are chasing a trip to Omaha or cutting their teeth in Low Class-A, Jason Heyward crushed major league pitching in 2010. The pre-season #1 prospect, whose legend grew with each car he dented while going deep in spring training, batted .277/.393/.456. Heyward’s 131 OPS+ as a 20-year-old bested that of Willie Mays and put him in the same company as Ken Griffey Jr. It’s no surprise, then, that there were enormous expectations for the Braves’ right fielder in 2011: the fans projected him to hit above .290 while getting on base nearly 40 percent of the time and slugging north of .500.
Instead, Heyward will step into the box for his first post-All-Star at-bat with a .226/.315/.404 triple-slash. Bothered by a right shoulder injury that has lingered since spring training and pushed him to the DL in late May, Heyward has yet to reach the double digits in home runs and has drawn criticism from Chipper Jones regarding his ability to play through injuries. It’s impossible for anyone outside of the Braves’ training room and front office to assess Heyward’s health. But let’s diagnose why Atlanta’s prodigy is turning in a subpar sophomore season.
Heyward hasn’t shown quite the same level of plate discipline this season, as his rate of swinging at pitches out of the strike zone has increased by about four percentage points (24.2 percent to 28.3 percent; the MLB average is 29-30 percent). Consequently, his walk rate has dropped from 14.6 percent to 11.1 percent. That’s still well above-average, but chasing more junk off the plate certainly isn’t a positive sign.
Perhaps the most aggravating trends for Heyward are his propensity to pop the ball up, producing gimme outs, and chop the ball into the ground, failing to make good use of his prodigious power and 6-foot-5, 240 pound frame. His 23 percent infield/fly ball rate is third-highest in the majors, trailing only Corey Patterson and Mark Trumbo. And Heyward’s 57 percent ground ball rate places him among lightweights like Alexi Casilla, Kosuke Fukudome and Elvis Andrus.
Swinging at more off-the-plate pitches, hitting the ball up the elevator shaft, smacking ground balls like a slap-hitting middle infielder — none of these are good things. But even so, it seems like he has endured some bad luck on balls put in play. His BABIP this season is .256, while his expected BABIP sits around .315.
In particular, Heyward has a .188 BABIP on ground balls. That’s 40-50 points below the NL average and ranks among the likes of Aubrey Huff and Yorvit Torrealba. Heyward’s infield hit rate is three percent, which is in the same range as David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero and Billy Butler, guys whose times to first base are measured with sun dials instead of stop watches. Heyward might not be a burner, but he has posted average-ish Speed Scores so far and has rated as an above-average base runner overall. Given his decent wheels, it seems highly unlikely that Heyward will continue to keep company with players who run like they have grand pianos strapped to their backs.
Even with a bum shoulder, Heyward has managed to draw a decent amount of walks and hit for some power. Yet, it’s difficult to project just how he’ll play during the rest of the season. Are the extra outside swings, pop ups and grounders the result of his shoulder ailment, or normal growing pains for a player who won’t turn 22 until August? Just how healthy is Heyward? Aggravating as it might be, we don’t know the answers to those questions. At the very least, we should expect Heyward’s average over the rest of the season to climb considerably.
Sadly, the only skill that Heyward hasn’t displayed during his bright, brief career is health. It would be a tragedy if nagging injuries keep him from playing to his full potential.
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 ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.