In his short career, Jason Heyward has already been seen as the new face of the franchise and a stalled prospect. Fortunately, he reverted back to a top-tier hitter, settling in the three-hole and giving the Braves a highly-productive player who should only get better. There are a few holes in his swing, but his all-around skillset gives makes him more than a typical corner outfielder.
While he was productive again, he did it in a very different way. After using a patient, groundball approach in 2010, he hit more flyballs and line drives while his BB/K ratio got worse. At .269/.335/.479, he was about 20% above league average, not quite the 35% mark two years ago, but still good, and definitely better than his 5% below-average mark of last year.
His batted ball profile was the biggest improvement for Heyward. Through August, he had a 20%+ line drive rate and a near 40% flyball rate, much better than his 15% line drive and 30% fly ball rates. He did have a rough September, only hitting 11% line drives and 31% groundballs. On the season, he had a .319 BABIP and a career-high 27 homers, despite getting less infield hits and an identical HR/FB% to 2010.
The plate discipline was a sore spot, as his walk rate fell again and his strikeout rate rose. He has evolved from a very patient hitter into a slightly aggressive one, also losing a bit of contact ability each season. While the aggressive nature may have helped his line drive rate a bit, the effect of the walks and Ks hurt the ability of stardom. Of the top 25 wRC+ totals in the league, only Josh Hamilton had a BB/K ratio below 0.4, while Torii Hunter and Ian Desmond were the next two on that list.
Most everyone knows that Heyward’s hole in his swing is anything hard belt or higher. This is signified by his fastball linear weight values. His 4-seam value was +0.57 runs per 100 swings, while his sinker value was at an astronomical +5.24 per 100, showing how well he hits a low ball. While it’s not good to have a hole in a swing, a lot of pitchers have to break their tendencies to hit his weaknesses. A sinker at the top of the zone is not very effective, so pitchers have to decide if they pitch to Heyward’s weakness or to their own strength.
The biggest problem with Jason was his enormous platoon split, as his wRC+ was twice as high against righties. Unfortunately, managers also knew this, as his 257 PA against left-handed pitchers was only behind Robinson Cano in the majors. All components of offense were worse against lefties, especially power. He also hit for a lot more power on the road, while his plate discipline and BABIP remained constant. June was his big month, while May and September were tough spots. Hitting in the clutch was also a bit rough, as he didn’t show much power with RISP.
Baserunning was one of subtle strengths in Heyward’s game, as his +7.4 UBR was easily the best mark in the game. He took the extra base 61% of the time, one of the highest rates in the league. His 21 steals were also a career high, but his eight times caught nearly canceled out the reward, rating +0.3 on SB/CS. He still ranked in the top 10 overall in the league.
Defense was possible his biggest contribution to the team, as his +21 UZR was as good as anyone’s in the league. He was able to hold or kill baserunners at an above-average rate for the first season in his career, and his error rate was also just above average. His main strength is his ability to go after the ball, as his +20 Range rating would insist. He has good speed and he doesn’t shy away from the wall, which is not always true of right fielders. I don’t expect +20 marks every season, but +10-15 is a reasonable projection the next couple years. He played a couple games in centerfield, but he does not seem to be an option for the position next year.
Heyward is entering his first season of arbitration, likely to earn between $3.5-4M. An extension would seem to be a possibility, though I don’t see them going much past the three arb. seasons, something along the lines of $16-18M. It’s hard to remember that he only turned 23 in August, and his 14.2 rWAR through age 22 is 20th all-time among position players. He has shown near-elite ability in so many facets of his game so far in his career, but if he’s able to put more of those categories together, he will be a perennial MVP candidate. He’s been tough to figure out so far, so expect a lot more tough decisions over the coming years.