A few weeks ago, before Jason Heyward started his recent hot hitting, some Atlanta sports-talk personalities asked if Heyward has been a bigger disappointment than Jeff Francoeur. As always when Heyward goes through a rough patch offensively the comparisons to Francoeur start. Even before he reached the big leagues the thought in the backs of the minds of some was that Heyward shouldn’t be over-hyped because of what happened to Jeff Francoeur. Never mind that all indications were that Heyward was a vastly more disciplined hitter and the signs pointed to a much better approach, even when comparing Heyward’s minor league numbers to Francoeur’s.
Well, let’s pretend that we should take the sport-talk crowd seriously. They have radio shows, after all, and they have a voice to spew their thoughts and ideas. Heyward is still hitting just .215/.324/.362 on the season, with an 87 OPS+, so you kind of understand what gives them the fodder to bring up such a comparison. And it’s not in the interest of talk-radio personalities to take a step back and look at the big picture or to understand how to judge baseball players or, if they actually do understand, to act like they do. The point is to be reactionary and to talk about something that will get others talking, to ask controversial questions.
But let’s do a more appropriate, non-reactionary comparison. Francoeur hit .266/.308/.424 with a 89 OPS+ in 631 games with the Braves. He came up during his age 21 season and was traded to the Mets in his age 25 season. In his best full season with the Braves Francoeur had an OPS+ of 102. Francoeur was considered a decent defensive rightfielder with a good arm and a decent baserunner. The only aspect of Francoeur’s game that stood out in these areas was his throwing arm. I won’t bore you with various numbers but the metrics back this up.
So far Heyward has hit .257/.349/.439 with a 113 OPS+ in 469 games with the Braves. He came up during his age 20 season and is now in his age 23 season. Heyward’s best season was his rookie season in which he posted an OPS+ of 131. He has an OPS+ of 87 so far in 2013. In his worst full season he posted an OPS+ of 93. Heyward is considered one of if not the best defensive rightfielder in the game. His throwing arm isn’t as strong as Francoeur’s. He’s also considered one of the best baserunners in the game. The metrics support all of this.
So Heyward’s career OPS+ of 113 is better than Francoeur’s best offensive season with the Braves, when he posted an OPS+ of 102. Heyward’s worst offensive season, when he posted an OPS+ of 93, is not far off from Francoeur’s best season. And in Heyward’s worst offensive season he posted a better OPS+ than the 89 OPS+ Francoeur put up during his Braves career.
A typical Heyward season (so far) has been better than Francoeur at his very best. Heyward at his worst for a full season was not all that far from Francoeur’s best full season. After you consider defense and baserunning, there’s little doubt as to which Brave was better.
I suppose one could make the argument that maybe Heyward has been more disappointing because he was Baseball America’s #1 prospect coming in to the 2010 season while Francoeur was rated just #14 in the 2005 pre-season. But Heyward stacks up pretty well against other young players. Since the start of the 2010 season Heyward has the third-highest number of Wins Above Replacement (per Fangraphs) of any player age 25 or under. He’s not off the charts in terms of career value at such a young age but he’s doing pretty well for himself, even for a top prospect.
There are a few reasons I believe Heyward sometimes gets labeled a disappointment. The main reason is that Heyward’s value is in areas that are not obvious from the statistics the sports-talk crowd tends to look at. Heyward’s career batting average is .257. He’s never come all that close to a 100-RBI season. He hit 27 homeruns last season, his career high, so he’s never hit 30-plus homeruns. He’s never stolen 30-40 bases in a season. He doesn’t make a ton of highlight-reel catches. Even his on-base percentage, aside from his rookie season, hasn’t been all that high. For his career as a whole, offensively he’s just done a lot of things pretty well. Defensively and on the base-paths the metrics are off the charts but not a lot of sports-talk guys pay attention to defensive beyond errors and flashy plays and they don’t pay a lot of attention to baserunning unless a guy is stealing well over 30 bases a season.
You take all this and consider the hype, and consider that Francoeur had a couple of 100-RBI seasons and hit .280 in 2005-2007, and it throws the sports-talk crowd off in terms of which player was productive and which player is more disappointing. The sports-talk crowd doesn’t think about and doesn’t get that RBI depend greatly on opportunity. Players who hit in the middle of good lineups and players who are aggressive tend to drive in more runs than players who hit at the tops of batting orders often and players who are willing to take pitches and get pitched around.
Sports-talk will eventually come around, as more and more of the baseball-only media transforms into viewing the game as front offices view it, and they start to look at the statistics that measure performance more accurately than the ones that are still relied upon thanks to tradition and convention. As the newer media people weed out the older ones, or just change the views of the older media types, other forms of media that are not so baseball-centric will follow suit. At that point players like Jason Heyward and Jeff Francoeur will be appropriately judged by the media at large and, in turn, the casual fan.