Jason Heyward. That was a name surrounded by hype when he burst onto the scene in 2010 and, to a certain degree, he delivered. Eighteen home runs in his first full season, which by the way was at age 20. What did you accomplish at age 20? My biggest accomplishment at that age was finding the perfect beer-t0-study ratio to pull off a GPA in the mid threes. Now, obviously everyone expected him to only improve on his numbers because, well, why wouldn’t he? I mean, did I mention he was only 20? Pretty sure I did, and if you are this far and forgot that, you may need to adjust your beer-to-study ratios. It’s not a flawless bet that he would improve, but close as a hitter in the game of baseball that is not even close to your prime. This may apply to real life as well, but I feel that’s when my physical, and to a lesser degree, mental abilities began to decline. I’m getting off track a bit, taking lines right from my memoir, Ramen Noodles for the Soul. Okay, so back to Heyward. After that 2010 season it would be a fairly safe bet to say he would probably put up even better numbers in a few years, and you know what? He did.
Not too long after Heyward was legally allowed to drink in the United States, he put up 27 home runs in a season. When he was 22-years old! While some debate still surrounds when exactly a hitter comes into his power hitting prime, age 22 was not among any of the debated windows. At the most wide open window combining many theories, the hitter’s prime is somewhere between 23 and 28. Pretty much any way you slice it, Heyward was not considered in his prime yet. The age 23 season was sort of disappointing, but he only had 440 plate appearances due to injuries so let’s not be too harsh here. Okay, so let’s throw that season out at this time for our purposes and move on to this past season.
The 2014 season was the one where the J-Hey Kid would take the majority of his age 24 at bats. Age 24 is just about in every hitter’s prime window argument I have seen, so this was gonna be a big breakout season for Heyward, right? Wrong. Well, sort of. It was not the power breakout many were foreseeing or, more likely, hoping for. Heyward, playing most games out of the leadoff spot, hit 11 home runs. Eleven?! Yeah, not great. I mean if you’re a 1980s prototypical leadoff hitter, well then, that’s some monster power. Jason Heyward, however, is not Brett Butler. On the ESPN player rater Heyward landed at 99, so still a top 100 player. That’s not terrible, but really Heyward should be a top 25 fantasy player. Yeah, you read correctly. Heyward got on base and stole some bags. Twenty to be exact. The steals, decent average and OBP with 74 runs still gave him some good value, but none of those things are necessarily what you drafted him for, right? The 11 homers and 58 RBIs were certainly not great. Okay, so what? Heyward had, overall, not a bad fantasy season. Okay, okay, fine, let’s address the power, RBIs and the fantasy value going forward.
Well, leading off, in theory, provides less opportunity for RBIs. I said, in theory. Without digging too deep into this, the leadoff hitter is supposedly hitting after the worst few hitters in the order and with a few exceptions, they are not getting on base all that much. Generally you will not see leadoff hitters leading the league in RBIs; that is not to say it is an impossibility, just a less likelihood. Even staying away from that lineup construction argument, before I get lambasted for not digging deeper on that, the Braves as a whole were not a very good hitting team. Their wOBA was .296, good for 27th in the league. That’s 27 out of 30, in case you were unaware. Doesn’t seem like Heyward would get too many RBI opportunities that way, does it? That was rhetorical, of course it doesn’t. The Braves probably aren’t going to have too much turnover in the offseason as far as the starting lineup is concerned, so the wOBA isn’t really expected to rise without some new approaches at the plate. That means if Heyward is to continue to leadoff, an RBI increase may be highly dependent on a home run increase. So where do we stand in that aspect?
Heyward had a big drop in ISO, average fly ball distance and HR/FB rate. None of that is what I would call a real good sign. According to www.baseballheatmaps.com Heyward’s average fly ball distance in 2014 was 267.27 feet. For context that was 238th among major league hitters in 2014. That could have something to do with the home run drop. So, is Heyward losing power at a time when he should be at his power hitting prime? Looks that way, but let’s dig a bit deeper here. Heyward, as he should, absolutely crushes pitches down and in, so pitchers, as they should, have stopped throwing it there . Pretty logical, wouldn’t ya say? The good thing here is that Heyward’s contact rate has gone up! I like that, because it shows some adjustment to the pitcher’s adjustment. So, what could be happening, is he is adjusting to make contact, going the other way more and that he has yet to get the full power going to that part of the park. You know what might help, here? A spray chart. Luckily Fangraphs has those.
Now, I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on reading these, but it seems like most of the hits in the air to left field had, on average, more hang time and, on average did not go as far as those balls he hits to right. Not only that, but looks like a good deal of balls were being hit to left field…even a bit more than to right. Maybe I am being a simpleton (it has happened), but I think I found the reason for the home run drop off or, at the very least a good jumping off point. But finding the cause is not as important as finding the solution and potential future outcomes. Well, for fantasy purposes, anyways.
Okay, bold prediction time. I think Heyward is a top 25 fantasy player in 2015. Don’t worry, I’ll explain. My thinking is Heyward has adjusted to the outside pitches already making better contact, and now as the power comes in, he will start driving more balls to left. Yes, I do realize that this is basically based on conjecture, but Heyward’s talent and ceiling need to be taken into account. The kid will adjust and come into his power. So, here ya go, Heyward puts up at least a 20-20 season and lingers around the edge of top ten for fantasy outfielders throughout 2015. Not sure if you consider that a bold prediction or not, but that’s what I got for ya!