Both were first-round draft picks from the Atlanta suburbs, both right fielders. Both hit home runs in their first big-league games, each against the Cubs. Both were given the Sports Illustrated treatment in the early days of their rookie seasons. But if you ask in the Braves’ clubhouse about further similarities between Jeff Francoeur and Jason Heyward, you won’t find many.
What you’ll hear instead is an admission of a key difference: That one was a football player, while the other is a baseball player.
The intent isn’t to belittle Francoeur, who had three good-to-excellent seasons as a Brave. He hit .300 as a rookie in 2005 and drove in more than 100 runs in 2006 and 2007. But when his early blush of success faded, it spawned a full-blown backlash fueled by a fundamental flaw: Francoeur swung at everything, and when in doubt he swung harder.
That was the football player in him. (Again, we must stipulate: Francoeur was a great high school football player.) A football player believes nothing can’t be fixed by sheer effort. It’s one of the reasons that oft-cited criticism of the Braves in postseason — that they weren’t “emotional enough” — was such a canard. Untrammeled emotion in baseball doesn’t make you Joe DiMaggio; it makes you an easy out.
Baseball is a game of skill and precision, not strength and mass. It’s noteworthy that Heyward, who grew up in a football state, never played the sport. (According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, Heyward’s dad wouldn’t let him.) And here we come to the fundamental difference between the two: Francoeur, who’s a bright guy, always seemed to fall back on raw talent no matter how many coaches he consulted, while Heyward has fused a happier amalgam of ability and analysis.
I saw Francoeur in a playoff doubleheader at Parkview High. He swung at the first pitch five times. He went 1-for-7, the hit being a home run. We contrast this with Heyward, who while playing for Henry County High often left scouts disappointed because he walked too much. In his SI story, Tom Verducci quotes an unnamed Cleveland official — the Indians owned the 13th pick in the 2007 draft, one ahead of the Braves — as saying, “We didn’t see him swing the bat enough to feel comfortable taking him that high.”
It took Francoeur 128 big-league plate appearances to draw a walk; it took Heyward 16. In 70 games as a rookie, Francoeur walked 11 times; in 40 games, Heyward has walked 25 times. One was all exuberance (sometimes irrational); the other is patience personified.
As John Perrotto noted in Baseball Prospectus, when Heyward hit .103 over from Games 11 through 20 the Braves advised him “to be more aggressive early in the count and consider swinging at more first pitches.“ This from the same voices — Bobby Cox and Terry Pendleton — who could never convince Francoeur not to swing so early and so often.
Which only goes to show: A manager or a coach can talk until the cows come home, but it’s difficult for a player to change who he is. Yogi Berra swung at lousy pitches but was good enough to hit them. Ted Williams never had a 200-hit season — Ichiro Suzuki has never not had a 200-hit season — because he refused to swing at anything that wasn’t a strike. (Rule No. 1 in Williams’ “The Science of Hitting”: “Get a good pitch to hit.”)
What worked for Francoeur worked well enough for Sports Illustrated to dub him “The Natural,” but then it stopped working. He’s hitting .219 for the Mets, and his on-base percentage is a lamentable .278. As the ballpark bromide goes: Talent can get you to the majors, but talent alone won’t keep you there. You have to keep adjusting, keep thinking.
As well as Heyward plays the game, he thinks it even better. Last month he walked by Pendleton en route to the batting cage, and the hitting coach asked if, seeing as how Colorado lefthander was that day’s starter, Heyward would like a lefthander to throw to him. “No,” he said. “The last time I hit against a lefty [in BP], I went 0-for-3.”
Five hours later, Jason Heyward came to bat with two out in the ninth inning. He took the first four pitches. Then he won the game with an opposite-field single. Jeff Francoeur might well have won the same game — he had some big hits, let’s remember — but he wouldn’t have won it the same way.