When Jason Heyward‘s Major League career began — with a home run in his first at-bat, might I add — in 2010, he was widely ranked as the number one prospect in all of baseball. The six-foot-five, 240-pound phenom from Ridgeway, New Jersey was just 20-years-old at the time of his debut, and he was fresh off a three-year stint in the minors in which he had compiled a near .900 OPS in roughly 1,000 plate appearances. The Braves just knew they had a budding superstar on their hands, and very few (if any) people with baseball knowledge were inclined to argue with them.
Heyward’s first few months at the game’s highest level did nothing to calm the hype-filled storm, either. Through the end of May, the prodigy was hitting an absurd .292/.410/.578 and appeared to already be one of the best hitters in the game. After a woeful June briefly brought his numbers back down to more reasonable levels for a 20-year-old rookie, Heyward settled into a nice level of performance the rest of the way and finished the season with very respectable numbers: an .849 OPS, a .376 wOBA, and 5.0 WAR per FanGraphs. Ultimately, he would go on to lose out on the Rookie of the Year Award thanks to Buster Posey (if Heyward was baseball’s first-half sweetheart phenom, Posey was the second-half equivalent), but he still put together a fantastic debut effort.
Then last season happened. In 2011, Heyward battled injuries and a general lack of productivity in a year that couldn’t possibly fit the stereotypical “sophomore slump” any more aptly. He saw his numbers drop across the board, including his BABIP, which fell from .335 in 2010 all the way to .260 in 2011. It wasn’t simply the product of bad luck, however; Heyward simply did not hit as well last season, as his line drive rate went way down and his power numbers diminished alarmingly. There is ample reason to suspect that shoulder injuries may have played a significant role in these struggles, however, and he still managed to finish the season as a 2.0 WAR player.
Now in his third season (his best yet), Heyward’s career appears to be back on track, even if he is a considerably different hitter than he was when he first entered the league. Once among the most selective batters in the game, Heyward’s walk rate has fallen from 14.6% in his rookie season to a just slightly above average 9.0% in 2012. The good news is that with that drop in patience comes a major spike in his power production, however — that .217 ISO is a big part of the success he’s having at the plate this season despite a mediocre .337 OBP.
More importantly, Heyward simply excels in the other areas a position player can contribute to a team — all of the other areas, in fact. There is perhaps no more well-rounded player in baseball if you sort through FanGraphs’ handy base running and fielding ratings for the season. Atlanta’s right fielder has been worth an incredible 18.3 runs with the leather alone this year per UZR data, second only to fellow phenom Mike Trout. On the bases, FanGraphs’ data will have you believe there is no one in the game contributing more than Heyward is: his 6.2 runs contributed in that department this season just edges Trout by a decimal point, and then there’s a whole run drop-off to third place.
A player with the hitting ability Jason Heyward possesses is useful enough all in itself, but for him to so obviously be one of the most all-around talents in baseball makes him especially valuable. You won’t hear his name mentioned in any MVP discussions (understandably), but his 6.1 WAR is the eighth best total in the National League, and there isn’t a better player on the Braves. While teammate Michael Bourn is tied with him in terms of raw WAR, I can’t imagine anyone suggesting they’d rather start a new team with Bourn as the foundation over Heyward.
In fact, there aren’t very many position players one could make an argument for over Heyward if it came down to choosing a franchise player for a new team, and that’s exciting news for Atlanta, who will soon be vying for a chance to go deep into the playoffs just a little over a week from today. The Braves have a deep, talented roster full of good players, but no one will be more critical to their post-season success than Heyward, their homegrown star who’s very much so delivering on his prospect promise, even if he has taken an unexpected route to do so.