Jason Heyward went from being a sure thing at 20 to a source of uncertainty by the time he turned 22, which is the way it can work. Make a great first record and you’re the Next Dylan. Make a lesser second LP and you’re the new Milli Vanilli. Which is why Music Snobs tend to judge an musician by what we like to call the Crucial Third Album.
Through the first 10 games of a perhaps crucial Year 3, Jason Heyward has hit .375 with two home runs and five RBI’s. And now, for contrarian purposes, we ask: Was a good start really crucial for this player?
Said Fredi Gonzalez, the Braves’ manager: “It’s important for everybody, but more so for him.”
Said Greg Walker, the new hitting coach: “It could have been an issue if he was the kind of guy who panicked.”
There’s the key. Of all the things the Braves liked about Heyward at age 20, outrageous athletic ability was only one. Yeah, he could hit the ball really hard and run really fast, but he also approached the game the way a 10-year pro would. He wasn’t given to irrational exuberance. (Or its evil twin — utter self-doubt.) Talent had gotten him to the majors in a hurry, but temperament would make him a superstar.
In sum, Heyward was the one hot rookie whose numbers absolutely positively wouldn’t crater in Year 2. Lo and behold, they did. He went from .277 to .227, from 72 RBI’s to 42. What caused that crash may never be fully explained, but Heyward offered his version before Monday’s game: “There’s a difference between being healthy and not healthy.”
Heyward hurt his right shoulder in spring training 2011, tried to play through it and wound up compensating for the ache by changing his swing, and not for the better. He also seemed to be one of the many Braves resistant to hitting coach Larry Parrish’s methods, whatever they were. That still shouldn’t have translated to .227 — Jason Heyward should be able to bunt .227 — but something did.
Nine games into the new season, Heyward’s 2011 appears the one-off to end all one-offs. He started to feel healthy again over the winter. “I got in front of the right people,” he said, and it’s clear he considers Walker and assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher among them. Of those two, Heyward said: “They are hitting coaches, players’ coaches.”
Gonzalez: “All the credit in the world has to go to Jason — he’s put in the work. But he trusts [Walker and Fletcher]. He’s bought into what they’re doing.”
Heyward didn’t nosedive from .277 to .227 because he stopped trying. His approach didn’t change. He just fell into bad habits and had no one to point the way. The new hitting coaches took pains to gain Heyward’s ear, and that bond is more important than any swing changes — there appear to be some, but they’re subtle — will ever be.
Heyward: “It’s not like I’ve been going 4-for-4. This game is about making adjustments. I’ve been able to make some of those adjustments.”
Wasn’t it hard to go from being the Next Aaron to hitting .227? Didn’t that put even the famed Heyward mindset to the test? Not really. “I know how hard I have to work, how patient and how humble I have to be. There’s no extra pressure.”
Then this: “I just come out here and play the game. I’m not trying to stand out; I’m letting the game play out. You can’t control the hype — that’s for the fans. For me, everything goes back to hard work.”
At 3:50 p.m. Monday, Heyward was on the field with Walker, taking lob-tosses from bullpen catcher Alan Butts and smacking the daylights out of them. This wasn’t even the scheduled round of batting practice — and the game itself wasn’t set to begin for another three hours — but the 22-year-old looked as serious as Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning in October.
“This game is about making adjustments,” Heyward said, and in Year 3 the apt pupil might just have met his Yoda. It would be wrong to say that Walker was hired to tutor Heyward — there are others here in need of instruction — but what coach in his right mind wouldn’t want to coach Jason Heyward?
“He had some bad days in spring training,” Walker said, “but he was back at it the next day. For me, that demeanor holds up.”
Parts of Jason Heyward’s swing needed tweaking. The demeanor was always world-class. When he says he didn’t feel any pressure, you believe him. When you’re as skilled and strong-willed as he is, you’ll never fail for long.
By Mark Bradley