Jason Heyward is an excellent player. He’s streaky, but a very solid offensive player who gets on base and compiles a ton of extra base hits, a fantastic baserunner, and since the start of the 2010 season (his rookie year) no outfielder has a better UZR/150 than he does at 18.9.
But let’s revisit 2010, his rookie year. Living in the Atlanta area, I have never heard a prospect hyped up as much as Jason Heyward was. A local product who rose to stardom through the prestigious East Cobb Baseball travel ball system, and dominated as an Atlanta Braves farmhand. Braves fans were calling this 20-year-old kid “the second-coming of Hank Aaron.” Obviously, fans is short for fanatics, and they often have a hard time getting a grip with reality when it comes to their teams. Baseball experts, and realists, had much more probable comparisons for Heyward. Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com compared him to Dave Winfield and Dave Parker, a Hall of Famer and former MVP, respectively. Kevin Goldstein, formely of Baseball Prospectus, dubbed him a “game-changing superstar.” Finally, Keith Law of ESPN.com guaranteed stardom for young Heyward, saying he would easily become a “middle-of-the-order bat with power and patience.”
Heyward’s rookie year got off to a torrid start, infamously homering in his first Major League at-bat off Carlos Zambrano, and his terrific offense continued all the way up to mid-July, when he was named a National League All-Star starter. Unfortunately, an injured right thumb kept him out of the game, and forced him to miss a fairly decent amount of the summer for the Braves. All-in-all, the 6’4” right fielder finished his first big league year with 18 home runs, 11 steals, a .277/.396/.456 slash line, along with a 134 wRC+ and a 4.6 WAR. For a 20-year-old rookie, that’s some pretty damn good production.
Heyward played 142 games that year, and 100 of them came with Heyward 2nd in the order, right in front of Chipper Jones. His patience, which translated to a terrific 14.6% walk rate in those plate appearances, set Atlanta up for run scoring opportunities early and often, and contributed greatly to the Braves potent offense, which ranked 1st in on-base percentage and 5th in runs in the National League.
In 2011, the young star battled more health issues, in which he was limited to 128 games and only 456 plate appearances. His injuries hampered his production, as his walk rate dropped dramatically, and his power was affected, as his Isolated Power saw a significant drop-off. His wRC+ suffered, as it dropped from a superb 134, to a below-average 96.
Heyward bounced back in 2012, but in an interesting way. He modified his stance a bit, moving further away from the plate, allow him to get his hands through the zone easier, as he was pitched inside constantly in 2010 and 2011. The power that had been so highly-praised in the minor leagues finally showed up, as J-Hey clubbed 27 homers and posted a .210 ISO, by far his career best. However, he sacrificed walks for home runs, and as a result of his change in batting stance, he was pitched outside regularly, and his strikeout rate shot up 3%. His defense was spectacular that year, and all of this contributed to his 6.4 WAR. 2012 was a very good year for Heyward, as he was the 10th most valuable outfielder in baseball.
Up until 2013, all Heyward knew in the bigs was hitting 2nd in the lineup. He had done so almost 3 times as much as he had hit in any other spot in the order. After the depature of Michael Bourn during free agency in the winter before the ’13 season, Fredi Gonzalez was faced with a new challenge with his lineup card. B.J. Upton, their newest free agent acquisition, wasn’t an ideal leadoff guy, although he had speed, and young Andrelton Simmons didn’t get on base enough. Gonzalez was forced to stick Heyward up top, mid-way through the season, and he was phenomenal. In 134 plate appearances while in the leadoff spot, he slashed .322/.403/.551 with a .413 wOBA and 168 wRC+. He stuck in that slot throughout the rest of the season, and during the postseason for Atlanta.
After collecting over 300 plate appearances in the spot, Heyward was dropped to 5th in the order Wednesday, as Gonzalez decided to shake things up in hopes to spark the offense. Revisiting the early evaluations of Heyward, this is supposed to be a superstar, middle-of-the-order bat, who hits for power.
Well, let’s analyze that:
- Is Jason Heyward a superstar? FanGraphs defines a superstar as a 5-6 WAR player; Jason Heyward has one such season thus far in his career (he is currently on pace for a 5-WAR campaign this year, per ZIPS and Steamer projections). As of now, Jason Heyward does not qualify as a superstar.
- Is Jason Heyward a middle-of-the-order bat? Clearly, no. I, personally, define a middle-of-the-order guy as a 3, 4, or 5 hitter. Over his career, only 23% of his plate appearances have come in those spots (he has never hit 4th). So, no again.
- Is he a power hitter? Go ahead and include his rest-of-season projection for this year for this one. Again, going off my count, a perennial power threat is probably at least a 25-homer guy, with at least a .200 Isolated Power average. He has one career year of 25 or more home runs, and is on pace for 19 this season. He’s eclipsed a .200 ISO mark once as well, and is on his way to a career-low in 2014. Yet another no.
So, what is this guy good at? I’ll tell you — being a leadoff hitter. Allow me to explain:
In all of Major League Baseball, there are only 2 men who have at least 275 plate appearances as leadoff hitters, with walk rates (8.5%), a wOBA (.316), and wRC+ (100) above league average. Only 2, and they are Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Jason Heyward. If you go by these highly regarded metrics for leadoff men, Jason Heyward is the 2nd best in all of baseball. And we’re sitting here criticizing him for not hitting enough home runs and not stealing bases? The Braves, a team with an average to below-average offense, should absolutely stick with him at the top of the lineup. There is no better option, and certainly no upgrade on this roster. There, by the numbers, is only one better option on any roster, anywhere!
Look, as I opened with, Jason Heyward is an excellent player who has contributed a lot to the Braves successes over the past 5 years or so, whether it be with the bat or the glove. The bar for him was set so insanely high that it is completely unfair and unjust of us to scrutinize him for not reaching the lofty expectations that were placed on him. That does not mean his overrated, he was just overhyped to begin with. He is not Dave Winfield, Dave Parker, and he’s sure as hell not Hank Aaron. It’s tough to put a cap on a guy’s career and future when he is only 24 years old. It took time for Alex Gordon to develop, and as MLB Network’s Brian Kenny noted on yesterday’s MLB Now program, over the past 3 years, Gordon has been the 6th best player in baseball. But, after watching Heyward day-in and day-out for 5 seasons, it does not appear that he will ever be the MVP-caliber player we hoped for, and it really doesn’t look like a .300/30/100 with 30 steals season is coming anytime soon. But, that’s perfectly OK.
Just because he is not the superstar and franchise player he was projected to be does not mean he isn’t a really good player. That’s the problem with the way people evaluate guys like him, and Alex Gordon, and even Heyward’s teammate Justin Upton. These guys were set up to fail with such unreachable expectations.
In the case of Heyward, he is the best defensive player in baseball (if you go by UZR/150), and offensively, he is not a superstar, but he is a terrific table setter, and threat to do damage atop the Braves batting order.
Jason Heyward: Not a superstar, but that’s just fine. He is still really good.
If you want to talk more about this or anything baseball related, you can find, follow, and interact with me on Twitter, @TheBTrain10.