Countdown to Spring Training: 21 Days – Jason Heyward

Only 21* days until live game action…

With 30 days to go, I started profiling a hitter per day highlighting one from each team. I selected my player of note from each team and then randomized them (which was pretty interesting consider who the final two were after the randomization) so that’s the order I’ll be following.

*Sorry for missing Friday’s entry, but I’m doubling up today so technically there are 20 days until live game action, but we’ll get to that later today!

JASON HEYWARD

On the heels of a brilliant 2009 campaign at age 19, Atlanta outfielder Jason Heyward entered the 2010 season as the #1 prospect in all of baseball. You’d have thought it was a full season when you saw his numbers with a .323/.408/.555 line including 17 HRs, 63 RBIs, 10 SBs, and 25 2Bs, but injuries limited him to just 99 games which he split pretty evenly between High-A (49) and Double-A (47) tacking on three more at Triple-A to close the season out. Despite the hype there was no guarantee he’d start the 2010 season with the Braves, but then a big Spring Training during which he hit .305 with five extra-base hits, four stolen bases, and a near1:1 K:BB ratio (11 K/10 BB) sealed his fate as the starting rightfielder for good in Atlanta.

Well, for good so far.

You know what happened next. He hit a three-run home in his first major league at-bat and went on to have an excellent, near-Rookie of the Year campaign falling short to Buster Posey by just 22 points.  Unfortunately that was followed by the fabled sophomore slump in which he dropped 50 points from his batting average, saw his walk rate & OBP tumble in concert, and he missed 34 games due to injury including right shoulder injury that sent him to the disabled list in late May. He first missed time with the shoulder on May 11, but looking at the numbers suggests it was plaguing him throughout the month before finally hitting the DL on May 22nd:

heywardmay2011

Ouch. And that doesn’t even show the fact that he managed one line drive all month. He had 12 groundballs, nine flyballs, four popups, and the one line drive. So while it is speculation on my part that the shoulder was ailing him all month, I think the evidence is strong. He rebounded a bit when he returned on June 15th finishing out the month relatively, but then fell back into a deep slump that last all of July and August. In the two months he hit just .212/.281/.394 with 6 HRs, 20 RBIs, and 2 SBs. Perhaps most alarming was that his usually solid walk plummeted to seven percent.

He was lost.

A major problem facing Heyward in his dismal 2011 season was an inability to hit anything with a wrinkle. This is not a new problem facing youngsters and he didn’t exactly crush off-speed in 2010, but his 2011 work against the pitches especially awful and the 2012 rebound no doubt aided his resurgence:

heywardoffspeed

He didn’t exactly pound the ball against off-speed stuff last year, either, but the bar was so low that just returning to 2010 levels was enough to really help his overall numbers. Isolating his work against curveballs specifically shows that to have been his problem pitch above all in that 2011 season. Though his .143 batting average against the changeup in 54 plate appearances wasn’t carrying him to any batting titles, either.

heywardcurveball

He still has to get better to become the superstar that many see him becoming (myself included). His 35 percent strikeout rate against off-speed stuff in 2012 was the 13th-highest in baseball. That put him in the company of new teammate B.J. Upton (36.4%) and Colby Rasmus (36%), a pair of supremely talented, highly touted prospects (Upton peaked as the #2 overall prospect in ’04; Rasmus at #3 in ’09) who have never quite lived up to their expectations. Look at their numbers against off-speed since 2009 (as far as back as the data goes):

prospectOFvoffspeed

Heyward is the “best” of the three, but the lead is marginal and entirely tied to his extra plate discipline with a walk rate that is nearly two times that of the other two guys. It might worth noting that within the 2012 season, Heyward did show some improvement against non-fastballs from half to half posting a 689 OPS against the pitches through the All-Star break and followed it up with a 761 OPS from mid-July to the end of the season. The splits were small samples of about 115 plate appearances apiece, but maybe he adjusted something in-season to improve.

One thing that stuck out was that he killed changeups in the first half hitting .346 with a 991 OPS against them albeit in just 30 plate appearances before falling back to a .174 average and 513 OPS against them in the second half, again in a scant 24 plate appearances. Perhaps his luck was just evening out and the split in halves has no real significance.

The bottom line is that pitchers are beating him with off-speed pitches on a consistent basis and he will need to adjust if he is to become a superstar, face of the franchise-type who will take the torch from the now-retired Chipper Jones. For those wondering how he fares against fastballs, he has an 867 career OPS against them with single season marks of 903 in 2010, 827 in 2011, and 860 last year. He does have one particular trend that has been going in his favor year-over-year: his groundball rate is shrinking while his flyball rate climbs. He started with 55 percent groundball and 27 flyball rates in 2010, moving to 55 and 33 percent in 2011, and finally 44 and 37 percent a year ago. He was very close to the league average batted ball profile of 45 groundball, 34 flyball, and 21 percent line drive.

I hope y’all realize how much restraint I showed by not once referencing that Heyward has Trouble with the Curve.

You’re welcome.

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