St. Louis – After being in the lineup for 20 consecutive games to begin the season, Braves rookie Jason Heyward was on the bench for the first time Wednesday night against the Cardinals.
Heyward leads major league rookies (and all Braves) with four homers and 16 RBIs, but was 1-for-20 with eight strikeouts over his past seven games, a slump that mirrored the Braves’ seven-game losing streak through Tuesday.
He struck out looking at a called third strike with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of Tuesday’s 5-4 loss against the Cardinals, and afterward manager Bobby Cox said that Heyward was “taking way too many pitches” and falling behind in too many counts.
Cox reiterated that Wednesday -– “He needs to be a little more aggressive; he knows it” — and said he wanted to give Heyward a day to rest a sore shin. He’s played with shin splints since late in spring training but never asked for a day off.
“It can never hurt you, can’t hurt your body” to have a day off, said Heyward, adding, “I didn’t ask for it [Wednesday], that’s for sure. That’s just the way the lineup was written.”
Heyward’s average was down to .224 overall with a still-solid .358 on-base percentage, fourth-best among Braves regulars behind Martin Prado (.433), Chipper Jones (.420) and Brian McCann (.405).
Heyward had only one fewer homer and two fewer RBIs than those three hitters combined.
“He’s got a lot of talent, and he’s hitting pretty good the way he’s hitting,” Cox said of Heyward, 20, “but we would like to see him, you know, get the bat off the shoulder a little more often.”
Cox had left-handed hitters Heyward and McCann out of the lineup against Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia, a lefty with a 1.42 ERA. Melky Cabrera replaced Heyward in right field and backup catcher David Ross made his fourth start.
Heyward was 4-for-22 (.182) with 10 strikeouts against lefties, including the bases-loaded strikeout Tuesday against lefty sidewarmer Trever Miller.
The rookie slugger said he understood what Cox and hitting coach Terry Pendleton meant about being more aggressive and taking fewer pitches.
“It’s early, so as far as just facing guys for the first time, or maybe figuring out what their go-to pitch is, or what the strike zone may be like for certain umpires, that’s all going to happen,” Heyward said. “Sometimes they’re going to make [good] pitches.
“Like I said, it is early. There’s going to be an adjustment period. Once you go through it once, and just to get any kind of rhythm that you’re going to have later in the season, you’ll be able to better react.”
Pendleton says Heyward, rated the top prospect in baseball before the season, is always receptive to advice and would use it to make adjustments, regardless of any success he’s already had.
“It’s a fine line, but a baseball player understands, a real hitter understands where Skip [Cox] is coming from,” Pendleton said, referring to patience at the plate. “There’s times you need to be aggressive and there’s time where you need to take the opportunity to take a pitch or two. And he’s had some opportunities where he probably should have jumped on the first pitch. It’s a learning thing.
“He’s been able to get away with that in the minor leagues. This is another level, where they might make two [hittable] pitches, and after that you’re done.”
Miller struck out Heyward looking at a straight fastball over the outer half of the plate with the count 2-and-2, after getting him looking at a curveball to start the six-pitch at-bat.
“Against Miller, I saw all two-seams [sinkers], sliders and curveballs, and then he threw a four-seam [fastball],” Heyward said. “I hadn’t seen a four-seamer from him…. My mindset should be to go up there and swing, versus take. Go up there and swing. So my only decision should be to not swing. Be ready to hit in any situation. But that takes time to get into.”
Jones was on second base when Heyward struck out. The veteran third baseman spoke up for the heralded rookie and said Heyward was going to be just fine.
“Miller made some pretty tough pitches on him,” Jones said. “It’s his first time through the league. Crunch time, you throw a sidearm lefty out there with a good slider, and you know, he located a good fastball on the outside corner. It’s not like it was right down the middle. It was located. Mac or Nate or any other left-hander would have a tough time with that guy.
“There’s a [learning] curve there. We’ve just got to be patient, let the kid see everybody a time or two.”
He has swung at only eight of 81 first pitches, a lower rate (9.9 percent) than any National League player except Martin Prado (7.7 percent), David Eckstein (8.3) and Chase Utley (9.6).
Prado is proficient in two-strike counts, hitting .304 (14-for-36) with 12 strikeouts and an .833 OPS. Heyward was 5-for-45 (.111) with 25 strikeouts and a .349 OPS in two-strike counts.
Heyward has taken 65.1 percent of all pitches he’s seen, eighth-highest in the NL on a list that notably includes only established veterans ahead of him.
“He needs to get it going a little quicker in the count,” Cox said. “He does have a great eye at the plate, but those balls that are an inch or two off could be called strikes at any time, too, and you can’t complain about it.”
Pendleton said, “With him going through this league, he’ll learn different pitchers, what he can do and what he can’t do and how to approach certain at-bats, certain situations, times in the game with the score being a certain way. It’s all learning.”