In Spring Training of 2010, there wasn’t much more noise around any player than Jason Heyward. Even with a stacked prospect class that year that included Stephen Strasburg, Giancarlo Stanton, Buster Posey, and Madison Bumgarner, he was a consensus top five prospect in all of baseball, with the kind of bat that coaches only dream about. The power to sell out games by himself, and the contact skills to tap into it consistently. The J-Hey kid was well on his path to superstardom, and rumors starting breaking out around camp that he was hitting balls into the facility parking lot, something no one on the team had ever accomplished. His legendary manager Bobby Cox praised Heyward’s enormous offensive prowess, and the hype machine built around Heyward reached his apex.
“There’s a little sound off the bat,” Cox said. “His line drives are kind of like ol’ Hank Aaron‘s sound.”
Not a bad comparison for someone who had just turned 20.
Jason Heyward’s bat was supposed to carry the Braves for years to come, and he even homered in his first at bat in the majors, a three run blast off of Carlos Zambrano. He finished the year with 18 bombs and a 134 wRC+, a ridiculous start for someone so young. Unsurprisingly, Heyward has become one of the biggest names in baseball, and an Atlanta icon, as well as racking up 21.3 rWAR over his first five seasons, making him a top 15 player in the sport over the time frame. But more surprisingly has been the way he’s done so.
After his tremendous showing in his rookie year, Heyward struggled to come close to the offensive promise he once flashed so easy. He’s seen a steady decline in his wRC+, dragging his career average down to 118. That’s still a good number, but nothing close to what he showed himself to be capable of. He’s a good offensive player, but that’s not what makes Heyward so amazing. It’s how he performs in the field.
Part of what made him such an elite prospect was his natural athleticism. Scouts saw his defense as good, maybe a little better. But no one expected him to blow up the way he did. He’s leading the league in Defensive Runs Saved, or DRS, a metric invented by John Dewan to estimate how valuable a fielder is. Going by the “10 runs equals a win” law, Heyward has added over two wins to the Braves’ record this year on fielding alone.
His range has been an integral part of his defensive ability. Despite being the most valuable defender in baseball, he doesn’t do it in the same flashy way we saw Manny Machado last year or Darwin Barney before him. Heyward takes excellent routes to the ball, displaying great range, and putting himself in great spots to snag line drives and fly balls.
Check out this play from earlier in the year against the Brewers, to rob Jonathan Lucroy of extra bases:
The ball carries well through the warm Atlanta sky, sending Heyward back to the wall. But his amazing athletic ability wins out, and helps him stay running at close to full speed as he has to keep his eye on the ball’s trajectory, and ends up making a tremendous grab.
Another play here against the Angels, Mike Trout sends a sinking line drive out to right field, where Heyward is now located.
Heyward keeps his body positioned correctly against the ball’s path, which will act as insurance in case he can’t snare it. But his excellent hand eye coordination wins out, and he plucks the ball off the very edge of the grass for a highlight reel play.
He may never reach the offensive ceiling that may have been unfairly bestowed upon the young hitter, but Heyward is finding his own way through the majors just fine.