Needed reminder: Jason Heyward isn’t a finished product

Jason Heyward said this isn't the first time in his life he has had to overcome obstacles. (Jason Getz/AJC)

Jason Heyward says this isn't the first time in his baseball life he has had to come back from failure. (Jason Getz/AJC)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – This is what we do, and by “we,” I mean everybody – fans, media, ex-athletes who now clutch microphones, the occasional bitter coach or scout, certainly that anonymous subculture that exists behind wacky screen names and disseminates wonderful new damning statistics that were invented, like, seven minutes earlier.

In Year 1, we embraced and celebrated.

“Hitting a home run on Opening Day — that was awesome,” Jason Heyward recalled Wednesday.

In Year 2, we questioned and trashed.

“Unfortunately I got hurt and I can’t control that,” he added moments later. “And as far as fans, media, whatever — I can’t control that, either.”

Why do we do this?

Jason Heyward is 22 years old. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that. Were you a finished product and ready for public consumption/dissection at 22? We watch and hear about athletes from the time they’re in high school now, and something in our brain says, “OK, I’ve known this kid for five years. He should be ready.”

Heyward was runner-up for the National League’s Rookie of the Year award in 2010. He hit .277 with 18 homers and 72 RBIs. His first major league at-bat: a three-run homer. He was projected as the Braves’ next great star. He was forecast as Atlanta’s next great sports icon. Young, athletic, good looking, Atlanta native, African American — marketing nirvana for the home franchise.

Everybody started erecting the scaffolding for the elevated stage a little too soon — because that’s what we do.

So when a few things started to go wrong last season – the slow start, the shoulder injury, the messed-up swing as a result of changes prompted by the injury, the drop in production that led some fans to scream, “We want more Jose Constanza!” – Heyward faced public criticism for the first time. When Chipper Jones said Heyward needed to learn what injuries he can play through, some concluded he was throwing Heyward under the bus. (He wasn’t.)

Fred McGriff said he had the advantage of being a lower-profile rookie. (Jason Getz/AJC).

Fred McGriff's early pains were lower profile. (Jason Getz/AJC).

The spotlight can be overwhelming for a young athlete when so much is expected so soon. Former Brave Fred McGriff has been in camp this week and worked with Heyward, watching him in the cage and counseling him. McGriff said he had it easier when he broke into the majors with Toronto.

“When I came up, I played with Lloyd Moseby, George Bell, all those older guys,” he said. “They hit me eighth in the order, so I had a lot less pressure on me. If I did well, great. If I didn’t, that was OK, too. I could ease into it.”

Heyward says he’s fine. He also wants to correct a few misconceptions: This isn’t the first time in his baseball life that something has gone wrong. It’s just the first time on such a grand stage. So the obvious question: How does he respond?

“All of us got here by doing what we know how to do, whether it’s mentally, physically, what have you,” Heyward said. “You want to stay as close to that as possible. Keep having fun, keep trying to get better. I’m 22 years old, and I didn’t get here this quickly by not making adjustments, by not learning on the fly, by not handling pressure situations, by not knowing how fans or media might take things. I’ve done a lot of things the right way, and that’s why I am who I am and part of the reason why I’ve been successful.”

He has had a lot of people in his ear. Probably too many. As general manager Frank Wren said, “From the time you have an 0-fer, somebody’s got a reason why. It could be as simple as, ‘The pitcher’s better than me today.’ Sometimes we try to make it way too complicated. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and go after it again.”

Heyward will do that. Depending on how this season goes, he’ll be viewed as either the next Clemente or the next Francoeur. Because unfortunately, that’s what we do.

By Jeff Schultz

103 comments Add your comment

Zach

February 29th, 2012
1:56 pm

Just let him play and he should be alright.

Dawgdad (The Original)

February 29th, 2012
2:05 pm

Too many opinions can be overwhelming to a young guy, but he should listen closely to the Crime Dog, he should have way more standing that some of the other wanna bees that are giving advice.

Herschel Talker

February 29th, 2012
2:16 pm

Schultzie:

Maybe we can put Crime Dog on the roster to pinch hit. At 48, I bet he’s still better than that clown Matt Diaz.

HT

reckingball

February 29th, 2012
2:26 pm

He will have a lot more success this year.

DetroitBraves

February 29th, 2012
2:28 pm

Just to be clear, the sabermetrics crowd has never given up on Jason Heyward. He posted a 2.2 WAR (damning statistics be damned) even in his supposed bad year last year and posted a .375 on-base percentage in September when the rest of the team forgot where first base was. I’ll keep believeing 2012 is a comeback year until it’s not.

Ted M

February 29th, 2012
2:28 pm

“Unfortunately I got hurt and I can’t control that,” he added moments later.

Actually he CAN control that…stop sliding head first. Especially in meaningless situations.

tmc

February 29th, 2012
2:34 pm

This goes for EVERY baseball player (including J. Heyward):

Spring training means NOTHING.
Pre-spring training means less than that.

show me in regular season play before i believe anything.

Shaun

February 29th, 2012
2:59 pm

Yes, “that anonymous subculture that exists behind wacky screen names and disseminates wonderful new damning statistics that were invented, like, seven minutes earlier” are among those who realize that Heyward has a very slim chance of becoming anything like the next Jeff Francoeur.

Also, that “subculture” are the ones who realized Francoeur should have been, at best, a part-time player at some point in the 2006 season and, at worst, should have been in the minors or sold high to some other franchise who didn’t realize Frenchy didn’t have the skills to play everyday in the majors (i.e., against right-handed pitching).

DetroitBraves

February 29th, 2012
3:01 pm

Heyward’s BABIP was only .260 last year, but around .330 the year before. It’s also true he hit too many ground balls last year. Whether that was injury, or mechanics, or injury due to mechanics or just plain chance – I have no idea. That’s what coaches are for I guess. But the data is the data. The good news is that while .330 may be a bit high, .260 is way too low and even with no change the Braves and Heyward should expect some bounce-back simply from regression.

Should also mention, that while the BABIP concept was formally introduced by Voros McCraken back in 1999, I have to admit that new sabermetrics can appear to be introduced frequently. I can see where this may be disconcerting. However, while we should maintain some healthy skepticism at the same time new ways of looking at the game shouldn’t be summarily dismissed.

Larry

February 29th, 2012
3:03 pm

Correction, Jeff. Jayson, nor his parents are grandparents, ever lived in Africa. He’s no more “African-American” than you or I so please stop being politically correct.

Like you and I, Jayson is an American.

Hillbilly D

February 29th, 2012
3:06 pm

Baseball is a game that rewards patience. The guy may turn out to be great or he may turn out to be a bust. He’s 22 years old, so it’s early to be putting him in either camp. My guess is that he’ll grow into a solid, above-average, though not spectacular player. Let’s wait and see.

Hillbilly D

February 29th, 2012
3:08 pm

Spring training means NOTHING.

I agree when you’re talking about established, veteran players. When it’s a guy fighting for a job, it can matter a great deal.

Dirty Dawg

February 29th, 2012
3:09 pm

Enter your comments here

DetroitBraves

February 29th, 2012
3:09 pm

Spring training can also matter a great deal when you’re talking about seeing if a previously injured player has recovered.

Kirk

February 29th, 2012
3:09 pm

@ tmc Are you serious? People and teams get ready in spring training. The rest of the year follows what does or doesn’t happen in spring training.

Big Crimson 75

February 29th, 2012
3:13 pm

Jay Hey is not a finished product…

Based on last year — I Hope not!

Shaun

February 29th, 2012
3:16 pm

Kudos to Jeff Schultz for writing this. Heyward got a bad rap last season from the media, fans, etc.

No one denied that he had a bad year. Many in the media and the fan base focused their attention on Heyward when other players who were at typical peak ages were having seasons just as bad or worse.

Many in the media and the fan base viewed it as Heyward being more talented than those other players, so he deserved the bulk of the attention and criticism. However, Heyward was 6-8 years away from what is typical peak age for a baseball player while these other guys were at what should have been their peaks and Heyward outperformed those other players.

The performances of Prado, McLouth earlier and Bourn later were more disappointing than that of a 21-year-old holding his own in the majors on a contending team, with a lot of hype surrounding him and injury problems.

Now, I’m not saying the media and fans would have been justified holding the same views about those others as Heyward, and that they should have expressed similar views about those other players just to even things out. Prado had injury issues of his own and never got going.

I’m saying let’s be realistic in our evaluation of Heyward. He had a season in which he was a league-average hitter, which is not good for a corner-outfielder, and he was solid defensively. Not what we Braves fans would have hoped for but nothing to be extremely alarmed about just yet, considering the injury problems, the hype carried over from 2010 and the fact that he was still 21 facing major league pitching.

DetroitBraves

February 29th, 2012
3:23 pm

@Shaun, I agree. Didn’t like the opening paragraph much because it was obviously another dig at the saber crowd even after saying yesterday he was going to let it go (is Schultz morphing into Murray Chass?). But all in all, good article. One that needed to be written. Agree whole-heartedly with the sentiment.

Shaun

February 29th, 2012
3:23 pm

We tend to overlook the role of bad luck in the Braves failure to make the playoffs rather easily in 2011. What if Prado doesn’t get hurt, what if Heyward doesn’t get hurt, what if Jurrjens and Hanson don’t get hurt, what if Dan Uggla is consistently good for the entire season?

I think we tend to overlook all the flukey and random things, and we want to look for someone to blame. I seriously doubt that any Braves players didn’t try reasonably hard to make themselves the best possible players in 2011. But sometimes flukey things happen and a team doesn’t play up to their talent level for a variety of reasons that no one can really control, and that team doesn’t win as a result.

blazerdawg

February 29th, 2012
3:33 pm

Thanks JS, did not really need the reminder.

tulsabravo

February 29th, 2012
3:37 pm

Hey Schultz, Do your homework! I think it’s fairly obvious what Heyward did last year to bring all his troubles upon himself…. He appeared in an ESPN Sportscenter commercial. Enough said.

George Stein

February 29th, 2012
3:39 pm

I won’t argue the first paragraph of this column except to say that I hope Heyward bounces back and many of the seven minute old metrics indicate he will.

itpdude

February 29th, 2012
3:49 pm

I agree with everything you wrote except for “African-American.” “African-American” denotes geography, not race.

George Stein

February 29th, 2012
3:52 pm

One problem, Shaun, is that the Braves moved Prado to LF, which diminishes his value. He was a 4 win player in 2010, but even if he repeated his 2010 offensive performance, he’d probably have only been a 3 win player last year. If he had played 2B last year and had his 2011 performance, he’s probably have been about a 3 win player, too.

PMC

February 29th, 2012
3:55 pm

We do this because we can’t go out there and do anything about it.

That, and because every couple of years the Braves are auditioning a new hot young outfielder and putting all the pressure on them to contribute in the lineup.

Francouer is a fantastic fielder, not good at the plate. We don’t really know what we have with Heyward yet, but the TEAM is already marketing him like a star why? Because the BRAVES ORGANIZATION has not spent enough money effort, or draft picks building quality outfield talent.

Sure, we have tons of pitching. What the crap was Nate McClouth? Jordan Schafer? I don’t even remember who was in left field when Francouer was here, some 2 million dollar journeyman I think.

We have one of if not the worst hittingt outfields in the league year in and year out. That’s not Jason Heywards fault, he’s only 22 and they have thrown him into it.

It’s the organizations fault for never bringing in the right talent.

WE HOPE Bourn is awesome, but we can’t expect it.

PMC

February 29th, 2012
3:57 pm

You can’t go year in and year out with hopes and dreams in the order just expecting things to happen.

The Braves don’t value the outfield, they’ve proven that.

Shaun

February 29th, 2012
4:01 pm

Yep, George. It was because of those 7-minute-old metrics that that anonymous subculture realized Francouer was Francoeur before everyone else realized it.

As far as the comparison to Clemente, I think Heyward is more like a Tim Salmon. He probably won’t hit for as much power but he may be a better all-around hitter, as far as hitting for average and getting on base and still having plus power. Also, he’s clearly more athletic than Salmon so he’ll be a better defender and better baserunner, barring some sort of major leg injury.

There is no perfect comp but I’d say Salmon with a little less power but more talent in almost all other aspects of the game.

PMC

February 29th, 2012
4:03 pm

The problem may well be that because we are so star starved in this city we expect “the next big thing” with every good player that comes along.

Maybe Heyward isn’t Barry Bonds. Happens every year with CFB recruiting here too.

Marco Polo

February 29th, 2012
4:05 pm

Just relax Jason. Study the pitchers and watch film. Don’t try to kill the ball. Just make contact.

George Stein

February 29th, 2012
4:06 pm

I expect Heyward to have a higher ceiling than Salmon because he can field his position exceptionally well. Salmon only had four years of 4+ fWAR, though I’d take the OBP in a nanosecond.

Devil's Advocate

February 29th, 2012
4:17 pm

LOL, stop sliding head first? Really? So if he jams his knee sliding feet first will your next piece of advice be to not slide at all?

Shaun

February 29th, 2012
4:26 pm

Oh, yeah. I think Heyward definitely has more upside because I think he has more hitting upside and he’s fairly close to Salmon in terms of power upside, plus Heyward is clearly better defensively and has more speed and baserunning ability. Salmon is a crude comparison, but the closest one I could find over the last 50 years.

PMC, Francoeur is not a fantastic fielder. He’s okay and he has a good arm. He’s not a great fielder.

In a sense we know what the Braves have with Heyward. They are sort of marketing him as a star because he’s a well-known name and the odds of him becoming a complete bust, like a Francoeur or (worse yet) a Komminsk, are pretty slim.

I can’t argue with you on draft picks in the sense that the Braves just never went over slot in the draft. As far as targeting outfielders in the draft, the major league draft is not like other sports’ drafts. You take the best available player that fits your budget because those players are at least 3-5 years from the majors. You can’t really look that far ahead to what your major league team will need by then.

I agree with what seems to be your overall point, that the Braves have had outfield issues for a while. I think the biggest mistake since 1991 was the David Justice trade. Justice didn’t seem to be valued appropriately. Aside from the Justice trade, I think a lot of that is just the luck of the draw: there wasn’t that available trade or that free agent that was worth their while in the outfield. Sheffield was about the only exception I can think of.

TexBravosFan

February 29th, 2012
4:29 pm

Everyone needs to calm down on Heyward. 22 years old. His skills didn’t just vanish, he had a bad year and was hurt. He just needs to develop and adjustment, no different than any other young stud player.
While I agree the Braves have had a poor outfield for a long time, it is hard to say they arne’t investing now–with Bourn in center, and Heyward RF, that is a solid outfield. The weak link is LF – Prado. He loses all his value in the outfield. Great as a 2b, not as an LF.

PMC

February 29th, 2012
4:42 pm

good points Shaun.

"Chef" Tim Dix

February 29th, 2012
4:53 pm

Sabermetrics is much like texting to me, in that I do neither.

You don’t homer in your debut as J-Hey did without the goods but swinging harder is not an adjustment. Also, Spartacus gave up the head first slide and dive early in his career and the kid needs to as well.

In regards to the saber guys there are many variables that, I guess could have a number attached to such as did my buddy the bartender gas so and so’s drinks last night. That’s the stuff I want to know…

cowdogit

February 29th, 2012
5:00 pm

Looks to me like the pitching staff has broken down before the season has even started. Leo Mazzone’s record speaks loud and clear with no division titles since he left.

GT Alum

February 29th, 2012
5:14 pm

Schultz, nice job of acting like the kind of arrogant jerk you claim “stat geeks” of being. If you paid attention, you’d notice the folks who are more into stats are usually the ones trying to shoot down the Heyward is a flop, Chipper should’ve retired 5 years ago claims that “fans” make based on their observations without any other support.

And if we are a bit dimissive sometimes, it’s because we get tired of trying to have intelligent discussions with people whose only basis for their argument is that’s my opinion.

tmc

February 29th, 2012
5:38 pm

Kirk- yup.

everything you hear about “how good Heyward looks…” or this spring is different… or whatever about how any player is going to do this year…
Is a complete waste of time.

I’ve seen players hit .600 in spring and absolutely suck once the season starts and vice-versa. IT MEANS NOTHING.

if you want to say it means something for a player making a team…. okay, whatever. But as to how it’s going to translate to the regular season? NO WAY.

A Father

February 29th, 2012
5:42 pm

Great athlete, Braves rushed him to majors, not one to accept coaching, will never hit a left handed pitcher.

Trade him first chance

bulldogbubba

February 29th, 2012
5:55 pm

Nice article Jeff. Hopefully he will come out of camp strong and we won’t have to debate whether Constanza or someone else should play.

abby normal

February 29th, 2012
5:56 pm

OK, so he’s not a finished product, but how long does it take to grasp the concept of hitting the ball up the middle? If he cannot do that left handers will wear him out again this year.

ohhhhYEAH

February 29th, 2012
6:17 pm

PMC

“Francoeur is a fantastic fielder, not good at the plate.”

Francoeurs career numbers in seven major league saesons: .270/.313/.433, 214 2B, 121 HR, 552RBI. The only thing NOT good is his K/BB ratio. And don’t throw any of that sabermetric crap at me, these numbers alone suggest he does just fine at the plate every year, minus the year he hit .239, but still managed to put up decent production with 71 RBI and 70 runs scored.

ohhhhYEAH

February 29th, 2012
6:19 pm

@ Shaun, you forgot to mention that JD Drew, the one year we had him, was also very good for Atlanta, even though we did give up Carpenter

cmc

February 29th, 2012
6:19 pm

Give the kid some slack…nice article Jeff and right on and maybe a fresh voice in Walker and Fletcher will help……hes got the talent to be a super star and I hope he’s wearing that “A” on his jersey for many years to come…we just got to be patient…J-Hey was not only player who struggled last year – the entire freaking braves lineup struggled hitting including the 60 million dollar man…r..

ohhhhYEAH

February 29th, 2012
6:21 pm

cmc

The “60 million dollar man” carried the entire team for about a month and a half. NO ONE was producing when he went on his tear. And it’s funny that the ones crying out for patience are the same ones booing him when he swings and misses at yet another slider buried in on his hands

George Stein

February 29th, 2012
6:25 pm

We gave up Wainwright, ohhhhYEAH, but your point remains the same.

ohhhhYEAH

February 29th, 2012
6:27 pm

Thats what I meant…….HAHA

George Stein

February 29th, 2012
6:27 pm

Also, I know we didn’t trade or sign him as a free agent, but there was that Andruw Jones guy who was nothing short of great in CF for a decade.

ohhhhYEAH

February 29th, 2012
6:28 pm

Enter your comments herei knew it was one of the two, i was just too lazy to look it up so i guessed!

George Stein

February 29th, 2012
6:28 pm

It sure would be nice to have Wainwright now, though. Sheesh. Drew was good for us that year, but Wainwright is terrific.