Why Jason Heyward (baseball) isn’t Jeff Francoeur (football)

Jason Heyward rounds third after his famous Opening Day home run. (AJC photo by Phil Skinner)

Jason Heyward rounds third after his Opening Day homer. (AJC photo by Phil Skinner)

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.

Jeff Francoeur delivers his debut homer. (AP photo)

Jeff Francoeur belts his debut homer. (AP photo)

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.

217 comments Add your comment

Me

May 26th, 2010
10:57 am

Rimfire

May 26th, 2010
11:01 am

Touche’
As much as I/we wanted Jeff to succeed. I’m positively giddy watching J Hey at the plate!
Hope he continues to progress. Vote him into the All Star game folks.

John

May 26th, 2010
11:01 am

Yeah and you’re no Jim Murray. Blah, blah blah blah blah

Me

May 26th, 2010
11:02 am

It’s quite the contrast between the two players. I wonder if Francoeur will hang it up and go play for Clemson. If Chris Weinke can do it at 28, why can’t Frenchy?

Reid Adair

May 26th, 2010
11:03 am

Jason Heyward is an incredibly talented player. He has obviously been willing to listen and learn from people who have been there to help him … and he’s still doing that today.

Mark Bradley

May 26th, 2010
11:03 am

Kudos to you, Me.

Melky way

May 26th, 2010
11:09 am

SECOND ! I still wished the the Braves had held on to Francour.And at Least not traded him to the Mutts,and we got nothing for him!

Andy

May 26th, 2010
11:12 am

Looks like Frenchy is coming back down to earth after his late season success with the Mets last year. He’s only hitting .219 but does have 25 RBI which is respectable. It looks like he is heading towards his typical 12-15 homers and 70-80 RBI season. It’s not bad…it’s just not very good. I think he will become a 4th outfielder in the not too distant future moving from team to team each year. By the end of his career he will have amassed decent numbers but just not enough to justify his early hype.

Ron Mexico

May 26th, 2010
11:20 am

Thats cause he wasn’t worth anything at that point, Melky. You are probably worth more in a trade than he is. Heyward is the man!

F-105 Thunderchief

May 26th, 2010
11:21 am

Brilliant analysis. The outfielder with the linebacker build has the true feel for and knowledge of the game.

clay

May 26th, 2010
11:25 am

every vote counts vote Heyward and Prado for the allstart game.

Roja

May 26th, 2010
11:25 am

Didn’t take long to turn on Frenchy. If Heyward’s average drops below .235, you will turn on him too.

myra

May 26th, 2010
11:25 am

Thank you Mark for this perspective. It does open my mind as to why the Braves traded him. We fell in love with Frenchy as fans because we thought he was the future, just as we have fallen in love with Jason.
Rookies can do this to you.
I still hope for an outfield of Francoeur,Schaffer,Heyward. It is a dream of mine.
Thank goodness for J-Hey.
Still pullin for Frenchy.

clay

May 26th, 2010
11:25 am

George Foreman 3:16

May 26th, 2010
11:25 am

Bradley gushing over Heyward is not a good sign it portends a great fall….

The Dogfighter Returns

May 26th, 2010
11:26 am

Way to kick a man when he is down Mark. This praise of Heyward needs to cease. Everyone at the AJC is on his jock. He is not the only brave on the team. Please cover something else.

It is so easy to write a blog about him.

Jeff is trying his best. Not every player becomes good. He is doing what he can, the only way he knows how. He is trying his best.

I hope you feel great about demeaning Jeff’s ability in order to cash your paycheck today.

DP

May 26th, 2010
11:27 am

The book by Ted Williams (and John Underwood) is “The Science of Hitting”, not “The Art of Hitting”, which is by Tony Gwynn (Williams wrote the foreword in that one).

Apparently the Cleveland scout who didn’t see Heyward swing enough did not believe in the Ted Williams approach to hitting.

Mark Bradley

May 26th, 2010
11:28 am

Thanks, DP. Sorry for the mistake.

DollarDawg43

May 26th, 2010
11:29 am

To his credit Francoeur has (to my knowledge) never griped about the trade to NY and has maintained the right attitude about things so I wish him nothing but the best but I believe the Braves have the better baseball player in Heyward.

MB hit the nail on the head on this one: an agressive nature is not always the best thing for a baseball player. Heyward is “patiently agressive” and “intelligently agressive”. It seems like such a small thing but it makes a huge difference.

Howard

May 26th, 2010
11:31 am

Regardless of what folks think of Francoeur and his present MLB travails, nothing can take away from him the fact that he was one of the best high school football players I ever saw. He would have been unreal in the college ranks and NFL. He wouldn’t have stayed at Clemson very long…he would have been like a man playing with kids there. But alas, NFL folks’ loss.

Joey

May 26th, 2010
11:33 am

Our #3 hitter can only dream about having 25 RBI right now . . .

dap01

May 26th, 2010
11:33 am

The difference is we care about Jason and could not care less about Jeff. Let’s move on…..

Marvin Mangrum

May 26th, 2010
11:33 am

Mark, that article was so exciting I read it twice. Thank you!

Mark Bradley

May 26th, 2010
11:34 am

He’s the best high school football player I’ve seen since I’ve lived in Georgia, Howard. And I moved here in 1984.

Mark Bradley

May 26th, 2010
11:36 am

Wow, Marvin Mangrum. I didn’t even read it twice. And I kind of wrote the thing.

extremus

May 26th, 2010
11:36 am

I hated to see the decline of Francoeur as a Brave, as from what I’ve heard he was a great guy and positive clubhouse presence, and he did initially give Atlanta fans quite a few really good memories. When Heyward hit that home run in his first MLB at-bat against the Cubs, my celebration was tempered by a concern that he too would succomb to trying to do so every time up at the plate.

Since then I’ve seen enough to know that Heyward won’t get the miraculous, game-winning hit or home run every single time, but then no other player ever has; they’re all human. But I’ve also seen enough to be convinced that Jason Heyward has a much more cerebral, patient approach to hitting than any player his age (and a whole lot who are much older) I’ve ever seen. I think he will be a very special player if he remains healthy, and I sincerely hope that we’ll get to see him do so in a Braves uniform throughout his entire career.

Mark Bradley

May 26th, 2010
11:37 am

Francoeur was and is a fine fellow, extremus.

OSCAR

May 26th, 2010
11:37 am

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

PMC

May 26th, 2010
11:39 am

Francouer is a better fit for the Mets than he was here. He’s still got one of the best arms in baseball and they have a cavernous outfield field. He also doesn’t have to be counted on as one of the most important pieces in thier offense so if he’s spray and pray it’s less of a concern. For the life of me I don’t understand why people still test his arm.

This Braves team is just such a poor run scoring team that his problems were magnified especially since he was the golden boy and had all sorts of ancillary sponsorships.

Heyward is a far better overall baseball player and more diciplined hitter. He fits better with the Braves for what they do.

The Braves are still a team in transition with a lot of holes to fill offensively.

GPB

May 26th, 2010
11:39 am

Let’s wait two years on Heyward. Frenchy was solid for a couple years and then tanked. While I doubt Jason will do the same, let’s just be patient.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Bradley, Football Hour. Football Hour said: [UK] Why Jason Heyward (baseball) isn't Jeff Francoeur (football): Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog… http://bit.ly/d2pmQu #football #UK [...]

.

May 26th, 2010
11:42 am

Preach on Brother! Preach on!…J-Hey’s the real deal.

PoliticalMan

May 26th, 2010
11:43 am

This is a surprising column after Heyward’s 40 games. I hope you keep it pinned to your cork board just in case you might want to revise anything down the road.

Ben

May 26th, 2010
11:45 am

Excellent article. Heyward understands that the first priority as a hitter is to not make an out. Francouer never understood (or could never apply) this basic concept.

Heyward has far better control of the strike zone at 20 than most veteran hitters ever develop. He’s truly a special player not only because he can swing the bat but because he knows when to do so.

Paddy

May 26th, 2010
11:45 am

Me…don’t see Frenchy going to Clemson or any other university. You can’t make 2-3 Million on a college campus playing football. He will run out the string on baseball, and be set for life. Then collect his max pension of about $75,000 per year later on. The tv on Sat is as close as he gets to football.

Chris

May 26th, 2010
11:46 am

It’s a good analysis Mark. He does think like a football player first and the prevailing mentality is that ‘everything can be overcome by sheer effort’ especially on the defensive side of the ball. I believe he was a safety/rover/bandit defensive player at Parkview.

If he does struggle for another year or two, I like the previous blogger’s comparison to Chris Weinke who started at FSU when he was 42 years old.

Mr. Obvious

May 26th, 2010
11:47 am

Jason Heyward was raised with humility, intelligence, appreciation for education, a good work ethic, strong social values, patience, respect for the game, respect for one’s elders to go not let one’s ego get inflated by the fleeting adoration of the public and media.

Jeff Francoeur? Not so much.

In layman’s terms:

Jason Heyward (2010) = The “Mark Bradley” of the Braves.

Jeff Francoeur (2009) = The “Jeff Schultz” of the Braves.

boots

May 26th, 2010
11:48 am

I know the article is not intended to criticize Francouer, but I, for one, am tired of all the Frenchy bashing. He is a solid guy and one of the best athletes that has come out of Georgia in some time. I have had a chance to meet him and talk to him with my son, and there is not a better illustration of what a pro athlete should be. I hope he gets it going, and I hope he is appreciated for what he has given to the city. We are all too quick to forget what is really important.

Steve

May 26th, 2010
11:49 am

You can’t even compare these two guys! Frenchy is just a gifted raw athlete and his raw talent got him to the big leagues. I think even if he would have went the football route he would have had a shot at the NFL. J-Hey on the other hand is just a baseball prodigy. He is a gifted and talented baseball player. One that comes around every so many years. I am just glad that we have him on our team for hopefully many years to come!

Clint

May 26th, 2010
11:52 am

Really a great read.

If Atlanta fans are as true as I hope they are, they’ll vote like crazy to get Heyward in the All-Star game. He deserves it and then some.

Steve

May 26th, 2010
11:52 am

I only wish the best for Jeff and I agree with Boots he doesn’t derserve to be bashed by his hometown. I was there the night he hit his first homerun and I can tell you it was emotional and special. It was something that I will always remember and it was a night that felt like the WS win in 1995. Jeff is a great guy and gifted athlete and I only wish him the best.

chin music

May 26th, 2010
11:54 am

Clint

May 26th, 2010
11:54 am

Boots, what did Francoeur ‘give’ Atlanta?

Dawgdad (the original)

May 26th, 2010
12:00 pm

Never saw Frenchy play football, but I will take the word of some of the bloggers about how great he was in HS, however, there is a big jump to college, and an even bigger jump to the pros. Never seen the speed in Jeff to make me think he could be a safety in the NFL, maybe a linebacker, but he would need to add some bulk. He is a great guy and I hope him success, but I believe he made the right decision to choose baseball. I did see him play HS baseball and he was awesome.

Heyward looks outstanding, but time will settle where he ranks, no need to get so giddy at this point. Lots and lots of players have sophmore problems and never fully recover. I think he will adjust and continue to progress due to his good attitude and ability, but no one knows for sure.

DP

May 26th, 2010
12:06 pm

I don’t think the difference between Heyward and Francouer is all or even primarily a baseball versus football mentality. I think Heyward is just much more talented as a baseball player. He has the ability to pick up a pitch more quickly out of the pitcher’s hand than Francouer, which is why he rarely swings at neck high fastballs and sliders in the dirt like Francouer does. Heyward also has a much more powerful swing. And he has a much better idea of what the pitcher is trying to do and consequently makes better adjustments during and between at-bats. Wait until Heyward has been around the league a couple of times and seen all the pitchers. I think he’ll start hammering more of those first pitch strikes that he has been taking.

An Adult

May 26th, 2010
12:07 pm

ME… congrats, you’re first in something for the first time in your life…. by the way, get a life

Travelling Dawg

May 26th, 2010
12:09 pm

I grew up with Jeff, though I was a year ahead of him at Parkview. I played on his first T-ball team. He was WAY more talented than everybody else, even as a 4 year old. He hit absolute BOMBS. I hated to see him leave Atlanta. That said…when it came time to trade him, I COMPLETELY understood. MLB is a BUSINESS first. The aim of any team is winning games. And you can’t refute this fact: from the time Jeff was called up, to the time he was traded, he made more OUTS than any other player in the majors. He just couldn’t seem to quit guessing and hacking. I hope for the best for him, but if Heyward’s start is any indication, the Braves made the right move. Maybe Jeff can get it together…and by then maybe we’ll need a LF. But the Braves’ RF spot is tied up for the next 10+ years.

Bud Kilmer

May 26th, 2010
12:10 pm

Mark,

You seriously think Jeff was the “best high school football player you’ve ever seen since 1984″

just out of my own sick curiosity, who else ranks up there in the high graces of Mean Mark Bradley?

#7

May 26th, 2010
12:14 pm

Bring Jeff back to Atlanta !! He can play Center !

Mark Bradley

May 26th, 2010
12:15 pm

Let me point out, Mr. Kilmer, that I didn’t see every Georgia high school player over the last 25 years. But I did see Eric Zeier, Reggie Brown, Takeo Spikes, Cosey Coleman, Jamal Lewis, Deon Grant, Derrick Steagall and Quincy Carter.