It was a sunny day on April the 5th, 2010. The Atlanta Braves were set to take on the Chicago Cubs at Turner Field, and the stands were buzzing. All eyes were on right field, where a lanky 20 year old rookie was starting in his very first big league game. This kid was different, they said. Could track a fly ball from center field to the bleachers — in foul territory. Swung the bat like his shoes were on fire, and ran fast enough to put out the flames. This was Jason Heyward, and he did not disappoint the home crowd…
How can you not be romantic about baseball?… The hushed silence of the crowd, and then the moment the ball leaves the bat the stands erupt with joy. Everyone knew. It was SUPPOSED to happen, I mean… it’s Jason Heyward. The wonderkid. The prospect that was going to lead the Braves into the next wave of divisional dominance, and lift the World Series trophy above his towering frame as it cruises down Peachtree Street.
…. So then what happened?
Heyward started off strong, living up to the hype that swept him to the Major Leagues, hitting over 80 home runs and racking up two Gold Glove awards before his age 25 season. Yet between mounting injuries to a once promising young pitching staff, and a farm system that was notably barren, the Braves were painted into a corner, and soon the choice became clear: It was time to rebuild. The organization could no longer afford what the price tag for the promising phenom would be when his rookie contract ran out, and this happened…
Suddenly, the guy that was painted as Atlanta’s next big thing was patrolling Right Field in St. Louis. He went on to have a strong season for the Cardinals, winning another Gold Glove, and even garnering some MVP votes while leading the Cardinals to the postseason yet again (Where they would lose to the Cubs in the divisional round). Now it was time for Free Agency. This is what teams were looking at:
- 20/20 Capability (had done it once already)
- Gold Glove defense
- 26 Years Old
- Leader in the clubhouse: Could be a Franchise Player
Well, the games began, and the team that knocked him out of the playoffs just that past season ended up the victor, signing the J-Hey Kid to a massive $184 Million contract. That wasn’t even the highest bid for Heywards services, as the Nationals reportedly offered $200 Million for their former rival, but he turned it down to play with the North Siders. Any deal of that size draws detractors, but for many, including ESPN analyst (And widely respected preacher of analytics) Keith Law called the contract “an extraordinary value“. The kid was on his way to claiming the throne of superstardom he seemed destined for.
… So then what happened?
The wheels fell off the bandwagon pretty suddenly, when the guy who was once thought of as a possible 30/30 threat put up a paltry line of .230/.306/.325 and could only muster 7 home runs and 11 stolen bases. That hurricane-like swing was missing balls at an epic clip, and he seemed utterly lost at the plate. It was as if he had forgotten how to hit, and that deceptive speed was rendered useless if he couldn’t get on base. The glove didn’t leave, however, and he continued to put up elite defensive metrics in right field, perpetually adding the “yeah, but..” to the “bust” conversation. Of course, it also helps when your team wins the World Series, ending in one of the most dramatic game 7’s of all time, and one motivational speech during a short rain delay.
That didn’t last long though, as he continues to struggle at the plate, and the superstar player that seemed to be put on this earth to play baseball drifted further and further into the “well, you can’t bench him, he costs too much!” conversation.
…. So what happens next?
Quite simply?… We wait. We wait for the tangible to meet the intangible. For the “eye test” to meet “the numbers”. What does that mean?
The Intangible: Heyward is in the midst of another predictably Heyward season, playing excellent defense while scuffling to a .273/.333/.412 slash line, and struggling to avoid being put into a platoon situation. Yet every time he connects, those who saw him early on think “ok, here it comes… the kid found his stroke again!”. He’s a smart player. Too smart to not make adjustments, try different things, even completely revamping that world famous violent swing of his. Nothing has worked so far, but ya know… SO FAR..
The Tangible: While the wood has been quiet for Heyward, the leather has been speaking volumes. Heyward has accumulated an incredible defensive resume, looking a little something like this..
- 5 Gold Gloves
- Total Zone Runs:
- 4th among all active players (127)
- 2nd among RF (Only Ichiro has more)
- 33rd All-Time at ANY Position
- 4th among all active players (127)
So just who IS Jason Heyward? Is this how we will know him? A defensive specialist that will one day be put into the same conversation as Alex Gordon? Or could he find his swing again, and could we be having the Kenny Lofton comparisons?
One can only wonder… and with every at bat.. every hot streak.. one can hope..