What Can We Expect from Jason Heyward in 2012?

Atlanta Braves

There's one for the scrapbook.

That first swing changed everything. You know the one. Opening day 2010. In his first major league at bat, Heyward sent a three-run bomb out to right, confirming the hype and permanently raising the bar for all future expectations that would surround the young star. His 2010 campaign was nothing short of stellar, as Heyward posted a .277/.393/.456 slash, started the All-Star game, and finished second behind Buster Posey in an exciting NL Rookie of the Year race. It was the year of the J-Hey Kid.

2011 was not quite as kind. Plagued by injuries and a bit of clubhouse drama, Heyward saw his numbers drop dramatically to .227/.319/.387 (that’s a very considerable difference of .050/.074/.069, for those of you keeping score at home). He lost playing time to the plucky Jose Constanza. He lost the his elite status. He lost the confidence of some fair-weather fans.

But none of this is news. Heyward’s story is well-documented, scrutinized by analysts, and blown up in the blogosphere a million times over (so a million and one couldn’t hurt, right?). Cutting through the noise, there’s only one real question that matters: what does the future hold for Jason Heyward? Will 2012 be reminiscent of his rookie campaign, or could his sophomore slump continue into season three?

There’s some real disagreement by the peanut gallery regarding Heyward’s spring performance. On one hand, a .190 batting average puts him in a category that most Atlanta fans reserve for Nate McLouth and Jesse Chavez. On the other, some reports say he’s “regaining his power stroke,”  and that “scouts are seeing improvement.”  He’s hit rockets that don’t seem to find holes. He’s also pounded balls right into the ground in classic 2011 J-Hey fashion.

Frustration

Heyward's spring frustrations revolve around the strikeout.

Hitting .190 in spring training? Not a big deal. What could be a cause for concern, however, are the 18 strikeouts and just 4 walks he’s accrued in 63 at bats. That’s a strikeout every 3.5 plate appearances, and a 4.5 K:BB ratio. Those numbers are not good. Here’s why:

2010 Heyward was lauded for his patience and approach. He was selective and discerning, walking 91 times en route to a .393 OBP. His K:BB ratio was 1.41.

2011 Heyward was a different story. His bad wrist elongated his swing, and he developed a reputation for being vulnerable to inside pitches. Pitchers came after him rather than pitching around him, and he began to press, chasing pitches we didn’t see him go after in 2010. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) dropped .075, a good indication he wasn’t hitting balls as hard. His K:BB ratio was 1.82, which was certainly not the worst in the league but constituted a significant step backward.

The point I want to make here is that a high K:BB could be the first signs of trouble for a hitter like Heyward, who is expected to hit for a high average and drive balls to all fields. The litmus test, in my opinion, will be how Heyward handles inside pitches. Look for opposing pitchers to challenge him inside early in the year. A healthy, locked-in Heyward pulls these balls with power. Opponents compensate by tempering their approach and pitching to both sides of the plate, giving JHey an opportunity to hit to all fields and awakening the Heyward of 2010.

Long story short: he hits the inside pitch, he gets his mojo back.

Other things on his plate…

“Unless something happens before we break camp, we don’t really have a true [backup] center fielder. I think Heyward may be better than Constanza if [Constanza] makes the team. I think Durango could do it, but if he doesn’t make the team then I think Heyward is your next choice. If [Jordan] Parraza makes the team, he’s more of a corner [outfield] guy. So it just gives us options and looking ahead, if something happens you feel comfortable Jason could do it.”

Heyward last saw actual playing time in center in 2009, where he played just 11 games there between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi. Constanza, Durango, and Parraz are all more experienced at the position (although none are excellent defensive options). Let’s hope Bourn stays healthy.

  • Another obvious difference between 2010 and 2011 is the team management. During his All-Star season, he was led by future Hall of Famer Bobby Cox. Last year he had Fredi at the wheel. I’m certainly not pinning his dramatic change in production on management, but that’s a resource I’m sure Jason sorely missed in 2011. Chipper is unquestionably the team leader, and hopefully he can make his presence felt in the clubhouse before hanging up the spikes at the end of the year and handing over the reigns to a relatively young squad. At 21, Heyward is being asked to grow up pretty quickly.

What do you think? Which JHey will we see in 2012?


2 Comments on “What Can We Expect from Jason Heyward in 2012?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    facebook said I did not have permission to post this to your page!


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