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jason-heyward-vs-expectations | October | 2010 Articles

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Jason Heyward vs Expectations

Written by Paddy McMahon on .

We've got a little break in baseballing action before the World Series, which, as you know, features precisely zero members of the 2010 Atlanta Braves. Sad, I know. So let's take a look back on one of the biggest positives of the season: the rookie campaign of the newly-anointed franchise savior Jason Heyward.

Heyward Walkoff celebrate

Heyward, who turned 21 on August 9, made his highly touted debut on Opening Day, defying the expectations of those who thought he'd likely begin the season in the minors for a few weeks so that the Braves could save a few million on his eventual arbitration cases. And it was a fairly ho-hum debut, if you're the kind of person that's so jaded with the world that a 20-year old hitting a home run in his first ever MLB at-bat is something you'd call 'ho-hum.' In which case you're beyond my help.

The Jay-Hey Kid would go on to build upon that strong debut, posting a strong .240/.360/.520 line throughout the month of April, then going on a Pujolsian tear through May, hitting .337/.453/.628. Those slashes come despite his playing through a groin injury that would, unfortunately, serve as a precursor of what was to come; in June, the youngster hit a meager .181/.287/.245 while suffering through a thumb injury that made it difficult to even grip a bat, let alone hit effectively. It was the same injury that would force him to miss the All-Star Game start that he had earned through his performance and the fans' vote.

Fortunately, he rebounded strongly, showcasing the same abilities that we saw in the first two months of the season. His July line looks precisely like this: .356/.457/.458, nearly making him the only member of the OBP>SLG club to post an SLG over a good-for-a-pitcher .379. The fact that he then went on to slug .536 in August suggests that the 'low' .458 mark was a result of the lingering effects of the thumb injury; hand injuries tend to significantly sap power. And then came the horribly disappointing September stretch run, when the lout only managed to hit .275/.415/.385. Psh. WHERE'S THE CLUTCHINESS?

Well, as it turns out, Fangraphs had Heyward at 4.94 WPA*, which was 5th-best in all of MLB. That means he hit well all season, and was particularly good in high-leverage situations, as good performance in those PAs boost WPA more than, say, a first-inning tater tot. And as long as we're talking about how he hit, let's delve a little deeper. That .277/.393/.456, 5 WAR season is excellent for just about anyone, and flat-out astounding when it comes from the bat of such a young hitter. In fact, it's a season for the ages; that .393OBP is the seventh-highest ever by a player in his age-20 season, trailing only, in order, Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Al Kaline, Jimmie Foxx, Alex Rodriguez, and Mel Ott again. You may have heard of those gentlemen. If not, allow me to edify you: they were, to a man, some of the best players to ever lace up cleats and take the field, and are all either in the Hall of Fame, or will be there eventually.

*WPA, while not necessarily a measure of 'clutchiness,' is short for Win Probability Added. It is basically the addition and subtraction of the various +/- WPA a player accrues over a season as graded by the Win Expectation system. For example, Brooks Conrad's walkoff grand salami on May 20 against the Reds was, by itself, a +.815 WPA play -- i.e. that one hit was worth nearly an entire win because of the likelihood of winning it added to the team's chances. By contrast, if you'll allow me to reopen a healing wound, Conrad's fielding misadventures against the Giants in Game 3 (3 errors, as if you've forgotten) came together to be 'worth' more (less?) than -.700 WPA. Essentially, the system tries to quantify how much - or how little - a player contributes to his team's chances of winning the game with each aspect of his involvement.

Clearly, Heyward's pitch recognition and plate discipline are nothing short of jaw-dropping for such a young talent. But that story goes beyond just the high OBP; he swung at less than a quarter of pitches thrown to him out of the zone, while the rest of the league swung at nearly 30% of those pitches. He also drew a walk in over 15% of his PAs - a high number for anyone, let alone a rookie. And, yeah, I know, you get it...he was young, just a rookie, blah blah blah. But I really don't think that one can overstate that point; if his stats alone don't push him ahead of Buster Posey in the RoY voting, the fact that Heyward outperformed Posey at such a tender age should be*. And it's not like he was some lumbering butcher in the field, either; rather, he was his pitchers' friend in right field, earning nearly 5 fielding runs above average.

*Let's play everyone's favorite game: What Could Have Been! If Heyward hadn't had that abysmal June, he would've hit .301/.417/.505. As a 20-year old. Who plays a very good right field. For a team that, against the odds, made the playoffs. If the National League hadn't been so stacked with candidates this year, that's the kind of performance that gets a dude some MVP talk.

So, really, what can't this kid do? Well, I don't want to play wet blanket, but there is room for improvement. His .335 BABIP may or may not be sustainable; it's well above the league average, but Heyward also has good speed and hits a lot of line drives (18%), so it's entirely possible he'll be one of those guys who just posts a better BABIP than most other fellas. He was also accused of sometimes taking too many pitches for his own good. Extraordinarily patient hitters will often get that kind of knock against their game, but there is some merit to it in Heyward's case; he did swing at only 40% of the pitches he saw (league average: 46%) and 59% of pitches in the strike zone (league average: 64%). And there is room for improvement in what happens when he does swing the bat, as Heyward hit over 2 ground balls for every fly ball, which isn't bad in and of itself, but hitting more fly balls -> more home runs -> more happiness.

If you're a Braves fan, the fact that I spent a paragraph getting about as nitpicky as I could in order to find flaws in the season that our rookie right fielder recently completed should actually be quite heartening. Because beyond those minor flaws - which I fully expect him to improve upon as he, to borrow Torii Hunter's words, gets his man muscles - there really hasn't been a blemish on Heyward's season beyond that thumb injury. And, really, who expected that kind of performance from the Kid? A quick look at three major projection systems tells us 'not many people.' Bill James had him at .303/.371/.465; CHONE saw a .258/.324/.416 line (fools!), and ZiPS liked him for a .275/.341/.429 clip. Basically, Bill James, with his famously optimistic projections, was the only major prognostication system that foresaw the kind of things Heyward would be capable of right off the bat - and he's not even a Braves fan. Basically, Jason Heyward was everything anecdotal hyperbole made him out to be, giving fans hope for the future as the present era came to an end.

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