I have tried to hold off on writing this piece for a while because it just seemed wrong to play debby downer, and I definitely considered not bothering after Jason Heyward’s 3-hit (plus a walk) game last night but I figured that would just make me lazy.
So let’s get right into it. In 2010 Jason Heyward produced absolutely ridiculous numbers for a player of his age: .277/.393/.456 with 18 home runs, a 14.6 BB%, and 5.1 WAR. He followed that up by playing 128 games in 2011 with a .227/.319/.389 with 14 home runs, a 11.2 BB%, and 2.2 WAR. So far this season he is hitting .235/.325/.408, with 6 homers, a 10.8 BB%, and 1.5 WAR.
The point of this article is not to say that Jason Heyward is a bad baseball player and that he should be traded away just like Jeff Francoeur. Jason is a good baseball player, without a doubt but is it time to stop talking about him being the face of the franchise, or even great?
The comparison to Francoeur may be unwanted but that doesn’t mean it’s not half bad. Jeff Francoeur had a great rookie season with the Braves where he hit .300/.336/.549 with the team for 70 games. Frenchy was immediately hyped up as the next face of the franchise, he turned down a contract from the team because it wasn’t enough, and proceeded to fade away from the limelight of major league baseball. To be fair to Francoeur, he has done well in Kansas City and is has been experiencing a solid major league career.
But that’s why I love this comparison so much. What if Jason Heyward followed a similar path? What if he faded away from the focus of Major League Baseball and all of the casual fans (he has already started to do that) and simply has a solid career somewhere? While that won’t be a tragedy, it will be far from what everyone was expecting of the J-Hey kid.
Since his phenomenal rookie season Jason has hit just .230/.321/.395 with 20 homeruns and 3.7 WAR. To put that in perspective for you, Josh Reddick has more home runs and compiled more WAR while playing 40 less games than Heyward in that same period of time.
The first thing to check when a player is struggling is the BABIP and Batted Ball rates. This has been done for Jason Heyward more than any other player in history so there is no need in doing it again now. His line drive rate in 11 helped explain the lower BABIP and also let us put the blame on his shoulder (which probably had a lot to do with Heyward’s fall from grace). His rates are better than ever before this year, and he has managed to cut down on the ground balls and increase the fly balls, which is what I previously said he needed to do to be successful.
Well, if he is doing these things, then what’s up? The next thing I looked into was his plate discipline numbers, and they actually proved to be pretty interesting:
*data from the always fantastic Fangraphs
|Year||O-Swg%||Z-Swg %||Swg %||O-Con.%||Z-Con. %||Con. %||SwStr %|
*Quick little helper for the categories above:
- O-Swg% = outside of the zone swing percentage
- Z-Swg% = in the zone swing percentage
- Swg% = swing percentage
- O-Con% = outside of the zone contact percentage
- Z-Con% = in the zone contact percentage
- Con% = contact percentage
- SwStr% = swinging strike percentage
Most of these numbers have pretty much been going in the wrong direction for three years. Jason has been swinging the bat more at balls out of the zone more and more each year. He has made contact with balls out of the zone more and more each year, he has made contact with pitches in the zone less each year, and his swinging strike percentage has gone up every year.
The big number to look at is the Z-Contact percentage. In 2010 the league average for contact in the zone was 88.1%. Heyward was slightly below this with 87.1%. In 2011 the league average was 87.9% and Heyward had an 85.3% mark. In 2012 Heyward has a 77.1% Z-Contact rate compared to the league average of 87.1%.
His swinging strike percentage is also a troubling number to look at, as he is now significantly worse than the league average in this category. The number hasn’t fluctuated much throughout the league (8.5%, 8.6%, 8.8% from 2010 to 2012 respectively) but Jason’s have gone up every year. This season he is swinging and missing 12.1% of the time.
All of these things are likely a big part in why his numbers aren’t where everyone thinks they should be. It also shows us why his walk rate has gone down since 2010 and his K rate has gone up. It probably also shows us why his power numbers still aren’t there.
In 2010 he had 18 homeruns because he hit half of his balls on the ground. In 2011 he hit 14 home runs because he was injured and still hit balls on the ground. In 2012 he has 6 homeruns and isn’t on pace to hit much more than 20 for the third time in his career. This year is different however and his lack luster power numbers are more due to the pitches he is deciding to swing at (and his success rate hitting these pitches) than not hitting the ball in the air.
In 2012 his HR/FB rate is all the way down to 11.5%. In 2010 and 2011 his HR/FB rates were at 16.8% and 13.9% respectively. There are several different conclusions we can draw from this.
- Jason is swinging at and making contact with too many bad pitches and missing the ones he should be hitting.
- Something is still wrong with his swing, as he is missing 12.1% of the pitches he is swinging at.
- He is trying to live up to everyone’s expectations and is really pressing too much in the batter’s box.
Regardless of what the problem actually is, Jason Heyward is underperforming, at least to the standard most people are holding him to. That’s definitely okay, Jason is human like the rest of us, and it’s probable that he doesn’t ever reach his full potential just like 99% of the other prospects in baseball. Even without reaching his Hall of Fame caliber potential, Heyward is a good baseball player… but can the Braves win a World Series if that’s all he can manage?