September 24, 2013

Heyward’s Hidden and Not-So-Hidden Greatness

Freddie Freeman is getting a lot of buzz in the MVP race.  Andrelton Simmons has the sabermetric types behind him, and is right up there with Freeman in the minds of many, because of his off-the-charts defensive season, according to all the numbers that go beyond things like errors and fielding percentage.  Both are up there in terms of most valuable Brave.

But on a per game or per playing time or per inning basis, amazingly, the Braves’ best player on the season might just be Jason Heyward.  Heyward was considered a disappointment for a large chunk of the season.  He moved to the leadoff spot and caught fire, then he got hurt.  On the season Heyward’s wRC+ is only 116, fifth on the team among players with any sort of significant playing time.  But Heyward is considered one of the best defensive players in the league, so plenty of value comes via defense.

Both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs have Heyward third on the team in Wins Above Replacement.  He’s 7th on the the in plate appearances and 8th on the team in games played.  Only Freeman and Simmons rank higher in WAR among position players.  Think about that.  The third most valuable position player on the Braves is a player who has played in fewer games than eight position players and has had fewer plate appearances than six position players.

When Heyward had a mediocre season in 2011 after a stellar rookie campaign, the Francoeur comparisons started, though these two players’ skills were not alike, particularly their approaches at the plate.  Heyward’s 2011 season was his age 21 season and he posted a 93 OPS+.  He didn’t have enough plate appearances that year to qualify for the batting title and he was in his age 21 season, yet some wanted to compare him to Francoeur and seemed eager to label him a bust.

In 2012 he bounced back nicely with a 117 OPS+ and was probably the team MVP (though an argument could be made for Michael Bourn or Martin Prado).  This season he started slowly, suffered appendicitis which resulted in an appendectomy and then took a fastball to the jaw.  Yet in spite of all this he’s been the third most valuable position player on the team.

Heyward has been an interesting player to discuss and write about throughout his short career.  He’s an interesting case study in how we often wrongly evaluate players.  He’s an imposing player yet his greatness has also been hidden in many ways so far in his young career.  We kind of learned some of the same lessons this season with Julio Teheran, a guy who didn’t look like he could escape Triple-A unscathed leading up to this season, as we did with Heyward after his second season.  But we tend to forget age should be a big consideration when evaluating.

Also, there are tangible things that we tend to look at more than others.  Typically most of us look at batting average, homeruns, RBI, runs scored and steals.  Many of us by now go beyond that to things like on-base percentage, slugging percentage, stolen base rate.  But players like Heyward get overlooked because though they may not post overly impressive numbers in the most real and tangible statistical categories to us, they do enough in so many areas of the game, some of which analytics people are just beginning to scratch the surface on how to measure, that they provide as much value as players with gaudy numbers in all the relied upon categories.

At the end of the day, given the opportunity, barring injury or misfortune, talent will show itself.  Maybe it won’t be on display in ways we expect or in ways that are clearly tangible to all of us, but it will eventually be on display.



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