(UPDATED: 2 a.m.)
Last season, Jason Heyward gave us no reason to wonder. He gave us only … wonder.
First at-bat: a three-run homer. First season: voted an All-Star starter. He finished with the second-most homers and RBIs on the Braves’ roster. He was the runner-up in the official National League rookie of the year voting by the media (the players voted him first in their award by Sporting News).
A corner outfielder with skill and power. A native of Atlanta. A product of the organization. Manna from marketing heaven. Somebody check — is there a lightning bolt burned into his bat?
But there’s something different about Heyward this year, and it’s the reason the Braves are looking for offensive help in the trade market. Make no mistake: Notwithstanding Chipper Jones’ extended string of ailments, Dan Uggla’s early struggles, and anything else that you might want to consider, the biggest reason the Braves are looking for another bat is Heyward’s second-year struggles.
Whether Uggla bounced back or not – and a 17-game hitting streak certainly suggests he has found his swing – he was going to start at second base. The team needs more production in the outfield. The talk of trading for Carlos Beltran, Hunter Pence or the like is about making up for some of the punch that has been lost by the young right fielder.
We should start with this: There is zero reason to question Heyward’s potential greatness. Those who suggest Heyward is hopelessly flawed and should be traded by the Braves — it’s astounding how many of those emails I’ve received — are being premature, nonsensical, shortsighted, knee-jerk and just plain dumb. They are the ramblings of frustrated fantasy-league players.
Heyward came through in the clutch Tuesday night against Pittsburgh, stroking a two-out, two-run single in the third inning to tie the game 3-3. His first three at-bats also included a walk and an infield single. (He finished the night going 2-for-7, but maybe he just dozed off like almost everybody else in the Braves’ 19-inning, 4-3 win over the Pirates.)
“We forget he’s 21 years old,” Brian McCann said earlier of Heyward. “The bottom line is, when you’re injured and you go on the [disabled list] and you change your mechanics, it’s going to take time to find your swing again. But he’ll be fine.”
It is taking Heyward more time than he would like. This is a first for him. He has dealt with injuries before – oblique, back, groin, foot. But nothing has messed with the mechanics of his swing like the shoulder injury he had this season, not even the thumb problems of last year.
Heyward is hitting only .222. Three weeks ago, he went 3-for-4 with a home run and a double in the series finale against Colorado, and the thought occurred that it might be a turning point. But in the next 12 games, he went 7-for-44 (.159). These numbers are anemic relative to his rookie season: .277, 18 homers, 72 RBIs, .306 with runners in scoring position.
Heyward says his shoulder is fine. He attributes the problems to “bad habits” he got into when he hurt the shoulder and before he went on the disabled list for 3½ weeks in late May.
The upside to all of this is that he still has more than two months, plus a potential postseason, to make an impact. The question is to what extent the Braves are rolling the dice on a player who entered Tuesday hitting .182 since the All-Star break and for the season is at .231 with runners in scoring position and .224 with men on.
He put it an unusual way, saying, “You have to enjoy a struggle. I’m re-learning what I need to do to be successful at this level.
Physically, he says he needs to get his hands back into his swing, stop letting his arms do all the work. But the process has been frustrating.
“It’s a mental thing,” he said. “If you don’t have a feel and you can’t trust your approach or your abilities or whatever separates you from the next person, it makes it difficult. You can’t be anywhere near as productive as you want to be or the team needs you to be.”
Five days before the trade deadline, Heyward realized earlier Tuesday he wasn’t where the Braves need him to be. It certainly doesn’t make last season an aberration. It just makes us wonder about the rest of this one.
By Jeff Schultz