October 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm by Ben Duronio under Atlanta Braves
There is one very important date that needs to be emphasized when analyzing Jason Heyward’s season. On May 10, Heyward expressed that his right shoulder that bothered him through spring training, and that it caused him to be removed from that night’s game. Heyward stated that he felt “numbness” in his forearm, and went 0-3 in that game before being removed. At this point, his average was down to .220, so it is likely that this injury became more serious at the end of April or beginning of May.
Heyward’s April line of .263/.354/.525 was impressive, though his average and on base percentage were both lower than the previous season. It is indeed possible that Heyward’s 2010 season was a bit overstated due to a potentially abnormal BABIP of .335. At the end of April, Heyward’s BABIP stood at .260, which looks a bit low but the seven home runs Heyward had in 26 total hits could be a factor.
Everything seemed fine with Heyward at that point offensively. The walk rate was still solid, the power was even better than the season previous, and the nagging injuries that have been so common in his young career were not hurting his play.
Below are three heat maps, courtesy of the great ESPN Stats & Info Group. Each map details Heyward’s batting average on balls in play.
Heyward in April of 2011
What I see here is a player who is able to extend his arms and reach outside pitches with regularity. Pitching him inside is likely the best option, given the count and situation of course. While Heyward stands as far away from the plate as almost any other player in the league, his lengthy arms allow him to cover the plate well enough to still be highly productive.
Heyward in 2011
This looks like an entirely different player, which could partially be due to the small sample size of the previous heat map and partially because of an injury or an alteration in his stance or swing. The outside is not quite a place to avoid as it was in April. The middle-half of the outer portion is his best zone, and down and in is a place he can turn on a ball. Anything up in the zone that is not in the middle of the plate can lead to an out as well. Pitchers have a lot of options when attacking this hitter, which is not a statement I expected to make about Jason Heyward before this season.
Heyward in 2010
Now this looks like a good hitter, aside from maybe the odd non-hot zone in the middle of the plate. This is a hitter that has really no open spot for a pitcher to pick on. Outside, inside, up, or down, he can get hits with regularity. Middle-away may be his weakest spot, but not nearly as weak as some of the open spots you saw in the heat map from this year. It is easy to understand how Heyward netted a .376 wOBA in 2010 when viewing this heat map.
The performance on pitches up and in is the biggest difference between 2010 and 2011. Correlation does not equal causation, but that shoulder injury keeps popping in my head when I see the differences in the two seasons. The next biggest difference between 2010 and 2011 is the volume. The heat maps does not look too different in terms of placement of the hot zones, but rather the volume is higher in each section in 2010 compared to 2011.
Could this be blamed entirely on the shoulder injury? Probably not. As mentioned, it is reasonable to say that Heyward was a bit lucky in 2010 with balls in play. A ground ball rate as high as his should probably not net a BABIP of .335. While I am not ready to put all of 2011 on Heyward’s shoulder, I am ready to say that it was a large factor, and a much bigger factor than poor luck. The shoulder injury likely hurt his power more than his average, which is something that has not been covered often.
When factoring in the injuries he suffered from and the good fortune he had in 2011, his career line of .255/.362/.427 seems to be a fairly accurate measure of his production and a reasonable base for projections. By that I mean, if you give him even luck rather than good luck in 2011 and he avoids the two big injuries that have hindered his play during his career, his line should look something like this but with a bit of an increase in the slugging percentage — probably more around .440-.445.
Now, what to expect from Heyward next season? With the expected improvements that a player his age often incurs, a .265/.365/.455 line seems fairly reasonable. He has the upside to put up an OBP above .400, and the downside of putting up an OBP in the .310 range. There is a good amount of volatility in projections, but expecting him to land on the higher side of the mean, as in the previously mentioned .365 OBP level, seems to be a sound projection. Combine that level of offensive performance with his defense and baserunning, and Heyward is a roughly 4 win player next season if he plays in 135 games and amasses 550 plate appearances. If he is able to avoid injuries and plays 150 or more games, moving back into the 5-5.5 win territory is certainly not out of reach.