In the midst of last week’s losing streak and his recent slump, the Jason Heyward criticism amongst Braves fans has ramped up yet again, as it did last season when he didn’t perform to the level of his rookie season. While no one can or should make the claim that Heyward has been a great player since the start of 2011, we should take a step back and take a realistic view of Heyward. He’s not hurting the team as much as some seem to think and it’s too early to write him off as a player who will not fulfill expectations.
There is no reason for doom and gloom and Francoeur/Komminsk comparisons just yet. Heyward is absolutely not a bust, at least not yet. He’s still displaying enough of the tools and skills he showed in the minors and in his first season to indicate he is still pretty likely to fulfill his potential of a solid batting average, a very good on-base percentage and solid power. Plus, he’s already one of the better defensive right fielders and a solid base-runner.
Heyward’s walk rate last season and so far this season is above 11 percent. That’s not quite elite but it’s just outside the top 30, right in the top 30-40 range among major league hitters. While walk rate is far from everything, it’s a very good sign that a 22-year-old is displaying the ability to draw walks at a fairly high rate, even if he’s been less than ideal in other areas. This is the most glaring difference between Heyward and Francoeur. Francoeur never had any sort of plate discipline. He fooled a lot of people because he posted impressive Triple Crown stats which, as I’ll get in to, are not so telling.
So what about Heyward’s failures in other areas besides an ability to draw walks? He hit .277 his rookie season then dropped to .227 in 2011 and is down to .233 in 2012. His on-base percentages went from .393 in 2010 to .319 in 2011 but so far has rebounded to .327 in 2012. His slugging has also bounced around from .456 in 2010 to .389 in 2011 to .413 so far in 2012.
A major reason Heyward gets a bad rap, it seems to me, is because of his low batting averages since hitting .277 his rookie season (not that .277 is all that great a batting average). The problem is that batting average doesn’t tell close to a complete picture of a player. Batting average assumes every hit is the same, whether a single or a homerun, and it does not take in to account all aspects of out avoidance. This is why we need on-base percentage and slugging and other stats related to getting on base/avoiding outs and accruing bases, in order to get a more complete picture of a hitter’s value.
Now Heyward clearly hasn’t been all that impressive a hitter, because even his on-base and slugging have not been great since his rookie season. But he hasn’t been as awful a hitter as those who tend to over-rely on batting average seem to think. We can look at a metric like OPS+, which is OPS adjusted for league and park. This metric adjusts for ballpark, since a hitter’s stats are going to be artificially inflated or deflated by certain parks. Also it takes into account league environment, which is more useful when comparing players across eras, for example, dead-ball era players to post-1920s players. It is to a scale where a 100 OPS+ is average, a 110 OPS+ is 10 percent above average and 90 OPS+ is 10 percent below average.
Heyward’s OPS+ since the beginning of 2011 is 95. That is not great, by any means, but it’s not so bad that, in and of itself, it’s an indication that Heyward is a bust that needs to be sent to the minors for more seasoning. Again, he’s still taking walks at a rather high rate, a decent indication he can recognize pitches, but he’s just having trouble with tough major league pitching. But he’s not having as much trouble as you may think, since his offensive production is only about 5 percent below a major league average hitter. Or maybe you think that’s not so good but, as I’ll get in to, it doesn’t make him an awful player when we take into account all aspects of Heyward’s game.
Another reliable measure of offense is Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). This uses aspects of yet another stat called Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA). wOBA takes into account the run value of each walk and each type of hit, based on data of how many runs a team typically scores if a hitter gets, say, a walk or a single or a double, etc. So, where slugging percentage assumes a double is twice as valuable as a walk, wOBA looks at the actual run value. wRC+ converts wOBA into how many runs a player created and also adjusts for league and parks, just like OPS+. Also, like OPS+, it is on a scale where 100 is average.
Heyward’s wRC+ since the beginning of 2011 is 100. So he’s been exactly a league-average major league hitter, even when we take out his rookie season. Among rightfielders, that’s between Brendan Boesch and David DeJesus. That’s clearly not good but it’s also probably not as bad as you may think and again, in and of itself, it is not an indication that he needs to be playing in the minors.
Moving on from offense, Heyward’s defensive contributions have been stellar. Since his career began, the metrics not only indicate he’s one of the best rightfielders in the game but one of the best defensive players in the majors. The defensive metrics are a little complicated but essentially most of the most reliable ones use zones for each fielding position and how many batted balls within and outside of the fielder’s assigned zone were fielded. Also, for outfielders, some metrics account for runners advancing on hits to an outfielder and how often an outfielder throws out baserunners.
There are also baserunning stats that take into account several aspects of runner advancement. Heyward rates as a very solid baserunner, according to these metrics.
So Heyward has been a major league average offensive player since the beginning of 2011. If we throw 2010 in the mix, he is comfortably above average with a 117 wRC+, somewhere between Jay Bruce and Torii Hunter among rightfielders over the span of his career. While his offense has been up and down and around league average these past couple of seasons, his defense is great and his baserunning is solid.
To characterize Heyward in simplistic terms, he’s a solid major leaguer, capable of holding a job but he’s not a star, at least not yet. Basically, he’s a second-division starter (a big leaguer in the bottom 15 at his position). Why is this not a concern for a player who was once a top prospect in all of baseball?
Well, first of all the Braves aren’t getting replacement or fringe-level value from him. Even if we take out 2010 that simply is not the case. A league-average offensive player that contributes greatly on defense and on the bases, that is collecting the league minimum in salary, works just fine for a major league team.
I know some want to discount his age as a factor in why he isn’t a first-division type player yet, essentially arguing that this is his third season and we should see him start to live up to our expectations by this point in his career. But age is a huge factor. Currently the average age of hitters in the High-A Carolina League, where Heyward was as an 18-19-year-old in 2008 and 2009, is 22.5. Heyward is hanging in there as a respectable big leaguer at the age of your typical High-A player.
But Heyward is not “typical,” right? He should be exceeding expectations, given that he was a top prospect, right? Well, in a perfect world that would be the case. But it doesn’t always happen that way. Very few players, even the most talented in history, settle in as legit first-division major leaguers by age 22.
Using Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which essentially takes into account in some form or another all the measures that I discussed previously, since 1980, only 15 players have collected more WAR through age 22 than Jason Heyward. Barry Bonds had 8.9 WAR through age 22. Heyward has 8.7 career WAR. Justin Upton follows Heyward on the list, with 8.2 WAR. Heyward doesn’t turn 23 until August, so he’ll have more WAR through age 22 than Barry Bonds. Yes, Bonds came up at 21 while Heyward came up at 20. But that should count for at least a little something as well, that a major league organization thought he was ready to do something at the big league level at age 20.
So why hasn’t Heyward been able to match the performance of a player who is essentially the same age and came up around the same time, Giancarlo Stanton? Stanton has 9.3 WAR. As you can see, it’s pretty close, probably closer than many of you think. Not a huge difference between 9.3 and 8.7. Barry Bonds, Carl Crawford and Tim Raines did not match Stanton’s performance through age 22. Should we be all that concern that Heyward hasn’t matched it? Does anyone want to place a bet that Stanton will have a better career than Bonds or Raines and maybe even Crawford? I certainly wouldn’t take that bet.
So what about Heyward’s recent slump? Over the last 14 days: .179/.256/.308. Over the last 28 days: .195/.300/.402. It seems he’s going in the wrong direction and is this cause for concern? It’s possible that it is. But it’s also just as possible that this is just some sort of random slump. If you’ve been a baseball fan for a while, you realize that these things happen. Remember Dan Uggla last season? Remember Dustin Pedroia his first month or so in the majors? Remember Albert Pujols’s start with the Angels? It’s not necessarily an indication he’s headed in the wrong direction or that he belongs in the minors. Certainly it could be. But a month is simply not enough of a sample to know anything about what he’s likely to do going forward.
As far as sending him to the minors, I strongly suspect that the Braves realize that since Heyward is performing like a big leaguer (albeit not a great one), he’s cheap, he has nothing left to prove in the minors and there frankly aren’t better options, they might as well keep him in the majors and let him develop there. If he’s going to go down to the minors and take reps there, he’s likely just going to just crush weaker pitching and not be challenged. He seems to have no major issue with pitch recognition, given that he lays off enough pitches to post a very good walk rate. His only issue seems to be hitting quality, major league pitches. To improve he likely needs reps against those types of pitches.
As far as trading him, the Braves simply aren’t going to do it. Would Frank Wren really take a chance on trading a player with the tools and skills to develop in to a legitimate star? I’m certainly a believer that no player is untouchable but I imagine it would be hard to find a team willing to give up equal value for a player with Heyward’s tools and skills, who is 22-years-old and who is under contract through 2016. That should be okay with Braves fans, even if we are a little disappointed so far.