When Jason Heyward burst onto the scene in 2010 with the Atlanta Braves there was an excitement buzzing around Braves Country over his potential and future with the organization. That first-at-bat homerun against the Chicago Cubs gave Braves fans visions of a 30 homeruns a year slugging outfielder to bat in the middle of the lineup for the next decade. Jason Heyward was going to be the next Atlanta Braves star. Four years later there seems to be a debate about just how valuable Heyward is to this team. Some love Heyward for his ability to get on base, and because he is possibly the best defensive outfielder in all of baseball. Some fans call him overrated and get angry because he did not turn into the slugger they had imagined he would. Just because Heyward has not lived up to expectations, does that mean he should be ridiculed or disliked by his own fans? Just because a player does not fit your specific description of what it means to be a good baseball player does not mean he is not valuable. In fact, Heyward has been one of the most valuable players in baseball this season.
According to Baseball Reference’s WAR, Heyward has been worth 5.4 wins this season making him third in the National League behind only Troy Tulowitzki, and Clayton Kershaw and ahead 0f Giancarlo Stanton. We can debate the merits of WAR on another day, but the fact that Heyward’s name is listed among the elites in the game in terms of value is impressive.
Fans may point to his .271 batting average or lack of homeruns and RBI to discredit his rankings among the best in baseball, but that discounts the defensive aspect of baseball. If you prevent runs from scoring that creates value. If you go by the “eye test” or look at defensive metrics it is clear Jason Heyward is the best right fielder in the MLB. When you watch him play you can tell he has excellent instincts, great range, and a cannon for a left arm. He makes every routine play while making the difficult look routine and the impossible look possible. As we know defensive metrics are flawed, but when your eyes back up what the numbers are saying it is hard to ignore them.
The metrics themselves are spectacular for Heyward this year. According to FanGraphs Heyward has 28 Defensive Runs Saved this season, and an Ultimate Zone Rating of 24.6. Those numbers are good enough to lead the league in Defensive Runs Saved, and take the second spot behind Alex Gordon in Ultimate Zone Rating. Whether you are watching him play or you look at the numbers it is clear that Jason Heyward is having one of the best defensive seasons for an outfielder we have ever seen.
Though all the talk this season focuses on how great his defense is, it’s not as if Heyward is a below average hitter. Currently Heyward is batting .271/ .357/.395 with 9 homeruns, and 43 RBI. His WRC+ is 114, which essentially means he is 14 percent better than a league average hitter. His power is not what you would hope for from a corner outfielder, but he still draws walks and gets on base a good amount. Since the All-Star break Heyward has been the Braves’ best hitter, batting a whopping .396/.473/.542.
Another nonsensical criticism you will hear of Heyward is the idea that he is not a “leader”, that if he were a “leader” somehow he would magically lift the entire Braves organization out of this funk and just start winning. First of all, the notion that one could understand a locker room dynamic without actually being there is laughable, and second of all, that is not how baseball works. To win it takes 25 guys each doing their part, night in and night out. This year Heyward has not been part of the problem.
At the end of the day Jason Heyward is a slightly above average hitter, and one of the best fielders in the entire MLB. To me that makes him one of the Braves’ two most valuable players, along with Freddie Freeman. You can make the argument that WAR is flawed, and that defensive metrics cannot be entirely trusted, but in this case the numbers back up what my eyes are seeing. Perhaps the criticism I have been hearing of Heyward is just from a few fans of the “lunatic fringe” variety, but I still feel compelled to truly appreciate all that he does for the Braves. He may not be the player he was projected to be, but he is still a valuable part of the Braves organization and we are lucky to watch him play every day.