April 12, 2012

Heyward’s Not a 30/30 Player But It Won’t Matter

A fan posted an interesting question on our Facebook page Wednesday night: Does Jason Heyward have the tools to have a 30/30 season?

Now, this doesn’t matter all that much to me.  Baseball offense is all about getting on base/avoiding outs and gaining bases by slugging, good baserunning or both.  As long as Heyward lives up to his potential in the on-base department and posts a respectable slugging percentage while remaining a good baserunner and a good defensive player, that is good enough.  He’ll be an legitimate superstar if he does these things, regardless of counting stats.

So much of racking up counting stats is just getting the opportunity.  A player can be a poor hitter and still hit 30 homers or steal 30 bases if that player isn’t getting on base enough or not slugging all that well.  See Jeff Francoeur, who contrary to popular belief never had any very good seasons in Atlanta, as evident by his on-base and slugging numbers.  He just racked up a lot of RBI because he was in the lineup literally every day for two full seasons, was in a good lineup and pitchers weren’t afraid to walk him and he wasn’t one to take a walk so he got plenty of opportunities to hit.

Nevertheless, the question of whether Jason Heyward has the tools for a 30/30 season is a fun one and allows us to talk about Jason Heyward and his skills.

Let’s get this out of the way first:  I don’t think Heyward’s issues last season were a result of some sort of mental sophomore slump.  Call me naive but I tend to think a major league player’s mental state is the last thing to consider if he performs in a drastically unexpected way, especially when there are other, more obvious issues.  Heyward had injury problems last season and they were well documented.  Major League Baseball is hard.  It’s hard for a 27-year-old with plenty of experience against major league pitching.  It’s even harder for a  22-year-old with relatively limited experience against major league pitching.  It’s that much harder when the 22-year-old is suffering through nagging pain or injury.

I don’t mean to discount the possibility that Heyward’s mental state was affected but, if anything, I think it was affected by not being able to perform well because of injuries.  I seriously doubt his performance had to do with the pressures of performing after the hype of his rookie season.  Plenty were hyping Heyward as the number one or two prospect coming in to the 2010 season and he performed just fine at a very young age.  Not to mention he had been a pretty hyped prospect before that and made it through all the filters of several minor league levels, performing just fine through it all.  I think most major leaguers, by the time they’ve reached the big leagues, are used to the limelight and having to perform with the spotlight on them.  Players who can handle pressure and expectations probably don’t make it through all the benchmarks on the way to becoming a major leaguer.

So I don’t think Heyward has to get over any sort of mental obstacle in order to become a 30/30 player.  One concern for Heyward is injury.  He had some nagging injury issues in the minors, in his first two seasons in the majors and that has always been the red flag for him.  Injuries may not allow him to rack up enough plate appearances to hit 30 homers or, more likely, may not allow him to get enough opportunities to steal 30 bases.

Aside from injury, Heyward’s skill set may not be conducive to 30/30 seasons.  Heyward hits groundballs at a fairly high rate.  Even in his very good 2010 season he was seventh in the majors in groundball percentage.  Groundballs are more likely to become hits but of course have no chance of becoming homers.  (Well, besides that rare grounder down the line that becomes an inside-the-park homerun.)

I suppose Heyward could develop an uppercut in his swing but if he’s productive I’m not sure if he will change drastically.  But it’s very possible that he will to some degree, and will develop more homerun power as a result.  He also could hone his swing in such a way that puts more backspin on the ball and allows it to fly out of the park more often.  I would actually be somewhat shocked if Heyward, given his size, doesn’t have at least a few 30 homerun seasons, even if he’s never a big-time homerun threat.

I see Heyward more as a Chipper Jones type hitter than someone like a Matt Kemp.  Of course I’m not ready to say he’ll have as many consistently great seasons as Chipper.  But I think he’ll be near .300/.400/.500 for the bulk of his prime seasons.  He won’t be the type to put up overwhelming baseball card numbers, batting average, homeruns and RBI.  But, again, I expect a few 30 homer seasons.

It may be a while, however, before Heyward hones his swing and develops his power to such a degree that he hits 30 homeruns.  By the time he is ready to take that leap, his speed may be diminished somewhat and he may not have a chance for 30 steals.  Plus, it’s not clear that he has the type speed for a 30 steal season to begin with.

If he attempted steals often, he could probably steal 30.  However, Heyward seems like a smart baserunner and realizes that there is no reason to attempt steals and risk getting thrown out just to rack up 30 stolen bases.  Plus the industry in general is wiser as to the value of stolen bases versus caught stealing.  Studies suggest that if a player doesn’t steal at at least a 75 percent success rate, he’s probably not helping his team.  So Heyward seems like the type of runner that is going to pick his spots carefully.

So I think a 30/30 season from Heyward is fairly unlikely.  But that doesn’t mean he’ll never be an MVP-caliber player.  I think there is a very distinct possibility that Heyward, given his skill set, will end up being undervalued to some degree or another, which is what makes him fascinating to me.  His skills are not the type that show up in the traditional statistics in an attention-grabbing way.  Most of his value is in his plate discipline and defensive skills.  I don’t think he’ll put up overwhelming power numbers.  He’ll probably hit for a very good average but may not win batting titles.

Plus Heyward has the quiet, calm personality.  He’s not a Kevin Youkilis.  He’s not going to throw helmets or break water coolers when he makes outs.  I could see him becoming a rich man’s J.D. Drew, if you will.  When his batting average isn’t in the .300’s and he doesn’t have 35 homers and 120 RBI, judging by the perception of him so far, there may be a group of fans who accuses him of not playing with passion.  But he’ll be a darling of the sabermetric community.  He’ll draw walks.  He’ll hit for enough power.  He’ll be a solid baserunner.  He’ll play good-to-outstanding defense (the advanced defensive metrics have him as one of the best rightfielders in the game since the beginning of the 2010 season).

Barring injury it’s hard to see Jason Heyward becoming anything less than an extremely valuable big leaguer.  He may not have 30/30 seasons.  All his stats may not look good on the back of a baseball card.  But whether casual fans realize it or not, I suspect he’ll be one of the more valuable players in the game for a long time.

Twitter: @PayneBall



4 Responses to “Heyward’s Not a 30/30 Player But It Won’t Matter”

  1. 1
    Walker Says:

    Great Read. It’s funny how it took baseball so long to realize OBP was a an extremely useful stat instead of RBIs. Getting on base is the name of the game. It makes me cringe to think about all those years of Keith Lockhart batting 2nd in our lineup.

  2. 2
    Shaun Says:

    It’s insane to me how many managers throw away the number two spot in the batting order.

  3. 3
    Mike Says:

    Until recently, I’ve thought of Heyward as a guy with huge power potential, but I realize now that that’s just not his game. And that’s fine. You make some good points, Shaun, especially about his ground ball percentage.

    #1 – I agree with what you’re saying about OBP, and it’s scary that our leadoff man’s OBP after six games is .192, the lowest of any starter (other than Francisco, if you count him as a starter, and pitchers, of course).

  4. 4
    Shaun Says:

    Thanks for reading and for the compliments, Walker and Mike.

    I don’t think Heyward is a huge power guy just because he doesn’t get a lot of loft on the ball with his swing. But I think he’s going to hit 20-30 homers most seasons and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t have a a few 30-plus-homer seasons. But he can crush the ball, so he’s going to get plenty of doubles and quite a few triples. He’s just not a big-time fly-ball guy.

    If you’ve never read “The Book” or any excerpts from it or anything about the work those authors did on lineups, you should check it out.

    Bourn would probably be better suited lower in the order, perhaps in front of guys like Prado and Pastornicky and maybe even Freeman. The idea is that speed is better leveraged lower in the order, in front of singles hitters.

    One of your best hitters (good OBP without power) should hit leadoff. You don’t necessarily need a speed demon in the leadoff spot, in front of your best hitters and best power hitters because you don’t need speed in order to score on homeruns.

    So, while speed is nice for any spot in the order, the importance of speed in the leadoff spot is vastly overstated. On-base ability is king from the leadoff hitter.

    That said, the difference between a typical batting order and the best possible batting order is not that great. And Bourn still has decent on-base ability so he’s not a horrible leadoff hitter. I wouldn’t read too much into his low OBP at this point in the season. When all is said and done, I’d be shocked if he’s worse than Schafer or McLouth or Alex Gonzalez as top-of-the-order hitters.

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