When a reporter mentioned this week that Jason Heyward had dropped about 20 pounds during the offseason and asked Chipper Jones if he’d noticed a difference in Heyward’s physique and how it affected his swing, Jones smiled and pretty much scoffed.
For the record, the nearly 6-foot-5 right fielder has gone from an imposing, chiseled 256 pounds to a chiseled, imposing 235. In terms to which some of our readers may better relate, Heyward’s gone from D-1 defensive end to D-1 tight end.
Now back to our story. Two or three times a week since the beginning of January, Heyward has been working in the batting cage at Turner Field with new hitting coach Greg Walker and assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher. There has been a third instructor of sorts taking part in many of those sessions: Chipper Jones.
Walker and Fletcher have worked with Heyward to break down his swing and get all parties on the same page in terms of where that swing was in 2010 and where it went in 2011 after Heyward had an early season shoulder injury that lingered, eventually landed him on the DL, and contributed to a case study “sophomore slump.”
Heyward went from hitting .277 with a robust .393 OBP and .456 slugging percentage (.849 OPS) in 623 plate appearances as a 20-year-old rookie in 2010, to .227/.319/.389 (.708) in 454 PAs in 2011. That’s an alarming 141-point decline in OPS.
“This is what I was concerned with: When he got to spring training in 2010, and into the season in 2010, when the ball jumped off his bat it was a sound and sight unlike anything you had ever heard or seen before,” Jones said. “And I didn’t see that at all last year. And it’s due to some of the things that he was doing mechanically.
“To answer your question, weight is not an issue with him. The ball is jumping off the bat now close to what it was in spring training 2010. He’s got some more in there; he’s still making some adjustments and it’s a slow process. As Tiger Woods will tell you, you go through a swing change, it takes some time. But he’s starting to get it and he’s starting to get results.”
This is when Jones began a detailed description of the primary flaws in Heyward’s swing last season, and how he’s made real progress towards correcting them. For a few minutes, Jones sounded entirely like a hitting coach as he talked about Heyward’s swing and demonstrated precisely what he meant, wielding a bat as he stood at his locker stall.
“We’re starting to get him going down the line,” Jones said, swinging slowly to show. “What I mean by going down the line, he’s staying through balls up the middle, this way up the line as opposed to coming around balls and hitting those easy hoppers to first and second base. Those are the things that happen when you get into bad mechanical habits.
“Whether injury caused them or not, he’s there. And we’ve got to get him out of it. In between ‘Walk’ and ‘Fletch’ and myself, and J-Hey and his attitude, he’ll get it done. He’ll get it back.”
“Walk and Fletch” sounds like some new-age workout plan. Or worse. But we digress….
They’ve replaced hitting coach Larry Parrish, a good guy who was old-school to the bone and got along fine with most players, but seemed incapable of communicating his ideas to some of his players, particularly a young one or two of them.
Parrish was fired after the first season of a two-year contract.
Enter Walker, 52, and Fletcher, 53, as the Braves for the first time go with a two-headed hitting coach model, something a few other teams have used in recent years including the White Sox when Walker was there.
Walker is the primary hitting coach, Fletcher is his assistant and will also spend plenty of his working day handling advance scouting, which the Braves are doing by video now instead of sending a scout on the road to do it.
They have already earned Jones’ stamp of approval. His first month working with the two sounds as if it couldn’t possibly have gone any better.
“A lot more technical,” Jones said of the new coaches. “They show you; they’re more visual guys. I’m a visual learner. You can sit here and talk to me all day and I’ll sit here and, I’ll nod at you and be looking at the back of your skull before too long. It goes in one ear and out the other. But if I see it on tape, what you’re talking about, and I see what I’m doing wrong and I can compare the two, then I can fix it. Then I have something to go to. And I think a lot of guys in here are like that.
“We’ve already been through a pretty good process with J-Hey so far this preseason. He’s seen what he did in April 2010 when he was going good, and how different that was from what he did most of 2011. And he was able to see it and compare the two swings, and that was something that was missing [before the new hitting coaches arrived].
“Greg and Fletch, at least through the first month of our relationship, have done an outstanding job of talking about hitting daily, watching good hitters on TV, comparing swings … all that stuff is going to be very valuable to these young guys.”
Jones is prepping for his 19th season in the majors (20 if you count the one he spent rehabbing after blowing out his knee in camp before his would-be rookie season). He’s a graybeard, literally and figuratively. But he’s also open to change, if it makes sense.
Having two hitting coaches seems to make a lot of sense with the old switch-hitter. Especially when one of those coaches is so well-versed in video usage.
“Fletch is awesome,” Jones said. “And I’m a huge advocate of having as many eyes on the hitter as you can. So many good things come from discussions, people just talking about the art of hitting. Because something that someone says in a group discussion may click for someone else – a term, a catch-word, whatever may click for somebody. You never know what it’s going to be, and so if you have enough eyes and enough people talking about hitting, guys are going to find stuff to try out and hopefully get to click for them.”
Which brings us back to Heyward, who has a little more than three more weeks to work before the Braves’ first full-squad spring training workout Feb. 25 at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
As Jones explains it, Heyward is regaining proper use of one of the “hinges” in his swing.
“When I say a hinge,” Jones said, “your wrists are a hinge, your shoulders are a hinge, your waist is a hinge, you knees are a hinge. You neck is a hinge. He lost this [wrist] hinge [Jones demonstrates with a bat].
“At the beginning of 2010 he had a nice rhythm [Jones pumps the bat a few inches forward and backward with his wrists, the bat pointed upward, held a few inches from his left shoulder]. And when he got his [front] foot down he got separation and he cocked the bat.
“When he got hurt, he started laying the bat open like this [Jones points the back backward at a 45-degree angle], and when he got his foot down he just left [the bat] there. It was almost like he was throwing a punch – boom, like that [demonstrates with a short-armed jab] instead of drawing back. He wasn’t loading this particular hinge [wrists], which caused the bat to sweep through the zone, which causes a one-plane swing that’s not very versatile. And consequently you’re seeing the ball not jump off the bat the way it used to.
“Now he doesn’t quite have this hinge back, but he’s not laying it open like this. He’s at least square; we’ve made that adjustment. He’s hitting against a stiff front side and staying behind balls, which is annother thing he was doing wrong. He was out on the front foot, coming around [with the bat] and getting beat inside, making 90-mph pitches [seem] 94-95 and blowing his thumbs up, which was another injury problem that he’s had.
“So we’re getting there. He’s 90 percent back. When he gets this hinge [wrists] right here, where he gets a little takeway — a little separation, we call it, between step and hands — he’ll be all the way back.”
Got it? Whew.
♣ Healthy Hanson: His red hair is longer, his beard bushier, his upper body more muscular than when we last saw him four months ago. But what’s even more noticeable about Tommy Hanson is the energy – in his step, his voice, his entire demeanor.
The shoulder injury that ruined the second half of his 2011 season is no longer a dark cloud hanging over Hanson, who for a couple of months couldn’t be certain he’d be able to pitch effectively again without surgery.
In late August he was diagnosed with a small undersurface rotator cuff tear in the shoulder, which prevented Hanson from pitching at all during the Braves’ stretch drive including their 10-20 slide to end the season.
Rest, rehab and shoulder-strengthening exercises have eliminated the pain, he said Thursday at Turner Field. Hanson worked out on the fourth day of the Braves’ early pitching camp at Turner Field. He has no restrictions on his workouts.
He threw the ball with impressive zip during a long-toss session with bullpen coach Eddie Perez in the outfield on an unseasonably warm day in Atlanta.
“It’s good,” Hanson said. “I’ve been doing all my regular workouts, and then doing physical therapy and just staying on that stuff, making sure my shoulder is strong and keep working on my back. Doing all my normal stuff plus some. I feel really good, though. Shoulder feels good, and I don’t feel like there’s going to be any restrictions or anything like that. I feel like I’m going to be ready to go.”
Hanson was 10-4 with a 2.44 ERA and .190 opponents’ average before the All-Star break last season, and the consensus was he should have made the All-Star team. Then the shoulder went from nagging to aching, and Hanson went 1-3 record with an 8.10 ERA and .313 opponents’ average in his first five starts after the break.
Jair Jurrjens had a similar season, following an All-Star first half (12-3, 1.87 ERA) by going 1-3 with a 5.88 ERA in just seven starts after the break due to a knee injury. Jurrjens missed all of September, when the Braves blew an 8-1/2-game wild-card lead in three weeks. He’s told Braves officials he is healthy and ready for spring training.
Hanson didn’t pitch again after Aug. 6, because each attempt to get back into the rotation ended when pain returned as he increased the intensity of his throwing sessions.
“It was just frustrating,” he said. “Even going into the offseason I didn’t know how it was going to feel or what was going to happen, so it was like a huge unknown. But I feel really good now. I feel like I’m going to be on time with everything and like my shoulder and everything is going to feel good.”
Instead of going home to California as he’d done after the 2010 season, Hanson stayed East this winter. He spent a month in Orlando after the season ended, working out with the training staff at the Braves’ spring training headquarters. Then he returned to Atlanta and continued his workouts with Lloyd van Pamelen, the Braves’ physical therapist and a strength and conditioning specialist.
“I started throwing at my usual time around Jan. 1,” Hanson said. “It felt normal then and it’s felt good ever since.”
He added muscle and strength in his upper body and legs during his postseason workout regimen, and the 6-5 right-hander goes about 235 these days. With the long hair and beard, he’s an intimidating presence in cleats. He plans to keep the beard this season.
“I’ll probably have it, just a lot shorter,” he said, smiling before he trotted up the dugout stairs to go throw in the sunshine.
♣ PEDs and Braun’s MVP: The Baseball Writers Association of America has no precedent for stripping an award winner of an award after he was later linked to steroid use, and so BBWAA treasurer/secretary Jack O’Connell said National League MVP Ryan Braun won’t be stripped of his award even if his positive test for a banned substance is upheld and he serves a 50-game suspension.
Thankfully, Jack left open the possibility of we, the BBWAA membership, at least discussing the idea. Because on this one I agree with NBC and MLB Network broadcaster Bob Costas, who said this week on Dan Patrick’s radio show that the BBWAA should be able to strip a player of an award if he tests positive during the year in which he won it.
Costas was asked what he thought would happen with the Braun case (it’s under appeal).
“No one has ever won an appeal,” Costas said. “The thing is set up and it’s made clear that even if you … unknowingly ingest something that trips the test, you are responsible for ingesting it. So I don’t see what his successful defense will be. So he sits out 50 games and it costs him more than $3 million.”
Costas continued: “I also do not understand the baseball writers’ position. I understand the position that you will not be able to go back and yank guys out of the Hall of Fame if it’s subsequently discovered that they used steroids. Or even that you can’t take away A-Rod’s MVP from years ago during a period of time that he has now acknowledged that he was among those who tested positive. But baseball ought to have a rule in place like the one football put in a few years ago.
“[Chargers linebacker] Shawne Merriman was suspended for using performance enhancing drugs during the year, but he still made the Pro Bowl. Then they put in a rule that said, ‘Look, you can’t make the Pro Bowl or receive an honor in the year you have been sanctioned. Not suspected. Not Jose Canseco wrote a book. Not something that came up in the Mitchell Report. But under our official procedures you tested positive.’
“Well, [Braun] tested positive in October of the year he won the MVP. So I think — and I’m not taking a shot at Ryan Braun, [who is a] terrific player, seems like a good guy too — I think you submit it to a re-vote. In which case Matt Kemp would easily win. In fact, if the Dodgers had been contenders, Kemp would have won anyway because he actually had a better year than Braun.”
I’ve said before here on the blog and elsewhere that Kemp should have won the award anyway, even though the Dodgers weren’t a playoff contender. Kemp had a slight OBP advantage (.399 to .397) over Braun and had more homers (39-33), more RBIs (126-111), more runs (115-109) and more stolen bases (40-33). Then there was the fact that Kemp had Andre Ethier as a wingman while Braun had Prince Fielder, who is nobody’s wingman.
Fielder led the Brewers in home runs (38), RBIs (120), walks (.107) and OBP (.415).
Anyway, this honestly doesn’t have anything to do with my feelings about who should have won the MVP in the first place — seriously, it doesn’t — but rather the precedent that should be set to permit the BBWAA to right a wrong in the future.
If a player tests positive for a banned substance during the calendar year in which he won an award, strip him of said award.
It ain’t perfect, but it’s something. Otherwise, we risk looking foolish. (OK, don’t need any comments from the peanut gallery.)
It’s not been made public what Braun tested positive for, and maybe it was something relatively benign. Maybe. But what if someone wins an MVP or Cy Young or Rookie of the Year award in the future, and we find out a month or two later that he tested positive during the year for some form of steroids, the “clear” or “crème,” HGH or Viagra (ha — just seeing if you’re still reading) — drugs that many doctors, trainers and players themselves say give an athlete a decided advantage in strength and workout recovery time.
And what if the award voting was particularly close to begin with? In my opinion, the runner-up would clearly be more deserving of the award than the disgraced winner.
Oh, by the way: In Milwaukee, where Braun is wildly popular, a poll in the hometown Journal Sentinel asked readers if Braun should return his MVP award if his appeal is denied.. Of 6,130 responses, 64% said no and 36% said yes. In Milwaukee.
♣ OK, let’s close this with a classic country tune by Gary Stewart, who was always overshadowed and underappreciated. You can hear it by clicking here. Man, I love this tune, which the mighty Scott H. Biram covered during Biram’s rousing show last week at The EARL (Lydia Loveless opened; yeah, it was quite a twinbill.)
“SINGLE AGAIN” by Gary Stewart
Today, I heard the awful news
Someone told the gospel truth
Said you’ve been running ’round
with a stranger who just hit town
He’s got a black mustache
and a red Cadillac
Now he’s got you
and I’ve got two
divorce lawyers on my back
Back on the streets again
The old bars ain’t changed much
Just a new face or two
when you’re out of touch
Born to lose, dying to win
Only thing I’m running from
is the alimony man
Because I’m single again
Drifting around from bar to bar
Running into our old friends
They won’t know where ya are
Last I heard, a little while back
You were cruising town in his Cadillac
Drinkin’ champagne, showing off a diamond ring
I’m getting by
in these hard times
Livin’ from drink to drink
A’back on the streets again
The old bars ain’t changed much
Just a new face or two
when you’re out of touch
Born to lose, dying to win
The only thing I’m a’running from
is the alimony man
’cause I’m single again
– by David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog