February 18, 2013 at 1:09 pm by Franklin Rabon under Atlanta Braves
Last year saw Jason Heyward get himself more or less completely back on track towards being the franchise cornerstone superstar we all thought he would be after his outstanding rookie season. He rebounded in virtually every traditional offensive category, and when you add in his superb baserunning and otherworldy fielding, he was a 6 win player overall.
However, I believe there are a few aspects of his game that are still a bit worrisome. I don’t think they’re things that can’t be overcome, after all he is just 23, and has more than held his own at the Major League level since he was 20 years old, an age when most players are in low A ball. But there are a couple things to be concerned about.
First, Jason still has the up and inside hole in his swing:
Here is his contact rate graph:
In play rates:
When he does put the ball in play, here’s his BABIP graph:
And here’s his in play ISO, to give a rough idea of how hard he hits the ball when in play:
As we can see, up and in Heyward: misses a lot (62% contact rate for a spot in the strike zone is REALLY bad), fouls the ball off a lot when he does make contact, and makes very weak contact when he does put the ball in play. Essentially, even last year, up and in was a “no danger” zone for pitchers.
Luckily for Heyward, pitchers are not used to pitching in the zone up and in. They mostly hate it, in fact. As we can see from the graph of where pitchers pitched to Heyward, even though they pitched him more up and in than a league average hitter, it wasn’t that much more, and pitchers still mostly attempted to pound low and away, as that’s their general strategy for every hitter:
Pitchers actually threw Heyward almost twice as many pitches on the lower, outer 1/9 of the zone as they did the up and in 1/9, which essentially reflects pitchers pitching to their comfort zone, rather than executing a plan to get Heyward out.
However, perhaps pitchers were a bit less worried about Heyward last year, after his offensively mediocre 2011, and were just less worried. Perhaps they will return to being very afraid of Heyward again this year and will again return to pounding him up and in.
Further, it was concerning that Heyward’s walk rate dropped last year, while his strikeout rate rose. Heyward was only in the 53rd percentile in walk rate last season (8.9%), while being in the bottom 26th percentile in strikeout rate (23.3%). As Andrew has pointed out, strikeout rate isn’t the be all and end all, but in certain ways, they can be alarming.
Essentially strikeouts aren’t as bad, if they’re a result of being patient and waiting for a pitch you can really drive. That is, sometimes if you take a couple of pitcher’s pitches, you end up in a hole, and strike out on a nasty 0-2 curveball. However, would you have really been any better off if you had simply made weak contact on the 0-1 pitchers pitch and grounded weakly to the second baseman? Not really, especially not if there was a man on first base, that led to a double play. However, strikeouts can be very concerning if they’re a result of a lot of swing and miss, and that’s where things are a tad bit worrisome with Heyward. last year Heyward was in the 20th percentile in swing and misses, when he swung and missed 27% of the time, compared to a league average of 21%. That’s troublesome to say the least. When a player swings, making contact is a good thing. Further, Heyward’s plate approach was a bit worrisome as well, when he was in the bottom 36th percent in swinging at fewest strikes in the zone (45.3%), but also in the bottom 33rd percent in swinging at balls out of the zone (30.7%). That’s a bit of a cocktail for worry, when combined. Heyward took more strikes, swung at more balls, and made less contact than a league average player. It’s not the strikeouts themselves that are worrisome, it’s what caused them that is worrisome.
Now, that all being said, Heyward more than made up for those deficiencies last year by absolutely destroying pitches over the entire lower 1/3, and everything over the middle, as we saw with his in play ISO graph. Further, like I’ve said, he’s still young, and as we saw with the pictures from spring training thus far, he’s actually still physically developing. A guy as big as Heyward will always have a little bit of trouble with the up and in pitch, but he can adjust and at least handle it. For now, it’s something that is concerning, but not something to freak out about. I would definitely like to see the return of his rookie season plate approach as well, when he swung at 42% of pitches in the zone, and only chased 22% of balls out of the zone (ie he only swung at slightly fewer strikes, and many fewer balls).
If Heyward can address these two issues this year, we could absolutely see him blossom into an MVP. If he can’t, he’ll probably ‘just’ remain very good.