Last night, the Braves defeated the Blue Jays 4-3 with a big assist from their right fielder, Jason Heyward. After a walk by the suddenly super-patient Dan Uggla in the sixth, Heyward doubled him home to tie the game at two-all. He would advance to third on a flyout, which became big as rookie Chad Beck was called for a balk that put the Braves up 3-2. The Jays tied it 3-3 and in the tenth, Heyward opened things by legging out a grounder. After a sacrifice bunt by Jack Wilson and with rookie Andrelton Simmons at the plate, Heyward felt he could swipe third on Francisco Cordero. J.P. Arencibia double-clutched and when he threw, his throw went into left field. Heyward jogged home for the game-winner. Personally, I was hoping for a Simmons’ game-winner, considering my post yesterday about him.
Coming off a two-homerun game and notching his third multi-hit game out of his last four, it’s only natural to wonder if the former Bryce Harper-before-Bryce Harper is finally on his way back to being the future of the Braves.
The answer…kinda, maybe, sorta.
When Heyward became the face of the new baby Braves in 2010, he did so while maintaining a high walk rate, a good ISO of .179, and possibly getting the potential aid of a super-high BABIP of .335. Add in a .376 wOBA and the second best fWAR on the team at 5.1. Hard not to believe that he was headed to some astounding things. He began the season at 20 years-old and didn’t turn 21 until August 9th. A lot of 20 year-olds aren’t trying to hit pitches from Johan Santana and Cole Hamels with authority.
To say Heyward suffered from an unfortunate sophomore slump last year is an understatement. His BABIP tumbled to .260 while his walk rate and ISO both fell a little. And if the production at the plate wasn’t bad enough, his inability to play through injuries prompted Chipper Jones to challenge his manhood. Heyward had also made a DL trip in his rookie season.
One thing that did not falter was his defense. Heyward’s UZR climbed from 4.2 in his rookie season to 8.6 and that was in less time. Only Oakland’s David DeJesus put up a stronger UZR out of right field.
As for this season, Heyward has had his ups-and-downs. After hitting .273 in April, he slumped to .200 in May. But let’s go beyond those numbers. His BABIP fell almost 100 points from April to May, however, in his favor was an increase in walk rate, though as typical with an increased walk rate, the K rate went up (though the K/BB was steady). However, despite less contact, Heyward’s ISO went up. So, while you can walk away from a look at the splits and become quite discouraged that his average was down, a look beyond those numbers show that he was starting to put together something.
So far, that work has paid off with a great start to June. Four of his nine hits have went for extra bases. Meanwhile, Heyward’s defense has taken another step forward. He currently holds a UZR of 6.2, second behind Ichiro Suzuki. Even more, the thing that I tend to look for in defensive stats is longevity. The numbers can lie both in favor for or against you for a season. With two-and-a-half great defensive seasons for Heyward, I do not think it is much of a stretch to say that he is among, at the very least, the top three-to-five right fielders in the game. Sure, Harper made him look dumb once, but Heyward paid him back.
Are we any closer to getting a good grip on who Heyward is as a player? Yeah, somewhat. Remember that the hype sometimes makes it tough for us to accept the player we ultimately get. How long did it take for Braves fans to see who Andruw Jones actually was? Heyward is still just 22 years-old and has awhile to grow into the player he can be. But there are encouraging signs and very few discouraging ones.
Start with the bad…Heyward seems to stand too damn far away from the plate. It seems that when he does struggle, it boils down to mechanical because he likes to wrap around the pitch away and drive it to center. If he’s not “right,” he will roll over that pitch or just miss it. He also struggles with pitches high and up, but I think as he matures and with his eye, he should be able to lay off those pitches for the most part. Most power hitters aren’t going to do much with high-and-inside corner fastballs.
I think his eye is coming back. While the walk rate is down, it bumped up to closer to his career mark last month. People say he gets too patient which is fairly ridiculous in my book. Again, as he grows as a player, his batting eye and plate discipline could become the most noteworthy thing about him. I also like that he’s showing more of a power bat. He actually controls the bat pretty well for a guy his size and seems to have a knack for driving the ball over the infield and into the gap. Depending on the range of the outfield and how it plays, Heyward’s speed can turn those doubles into triples.
Speaking of speed, Heyward does have the potential to routinely turn in 20/20 seasons for the next few years. Working with Michael Bourn and others, you get the feeling that Heyward’s instincts and knowledge are taking over on the basepaths and that he has a good plan out there to push the pitcher. Unlike his predecessor as Golden Boy, Heyward seems to get to full speed almost instantaneously and that is huge when it comes to basestealing. Heyward’s still learning this craft and he never stole more than 15 in a season during his professional career, but adding that weapon has already been huge.
We have seen a 30 point jump in his wOBA to .344. Now, that mark’s not great…fifth best on the team…and overall, that number is about average. However, Heyward’s far from a finished product and improvement is something to be lauded.
What is most notable so far is a change of approach and/or how Heyward is being pitched. During his first two seasons, Heyward lived on hitting the ball on the ground, sprinkling in line drives, and keeping the ball from taking really any kind of arch through the air. That’s good if you are Martin Prado, but Heyward was expected to provide 30 HR power. Keeping the ball on the ground close to 55% won’t allow that to occur. So, this season, Heyward has began to put the ball in the air. GB ratio is at 38% while his flyball ratio is nine points higher than last year at 41%, plus his line drive rate’s over 20% for the first time. Flyballs can be bad because often, they are harmless, but Heyward has been able to get away from a killer number for him last year…infield flyballs. A strong infield flyball rate would suggest a hitter is failing to make any considerable contact on the ball and getting under the ball too often, i.e. Willie Mays Hays. That rate for Heyward was close to 22% last season, but it’s down to a shade over 10% this season. Heyward’s showing more authority at the plate.
Again, he’s a work in progress. There are plenty of things to get down on him for. However…what I see is improvement and when a player shows that, especially at an age when players are only beginning to get called up to the bigs, I am pretty excited for the future.