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Jason Heyward Needs to Become What the Atlanta Braves Expected

Jason Heyward is an extremely well liked Atlanta Braves player.  I can’t think of any fans or teammates who don’t want him to succeed.  He came into the league (as many do) like wildfire.  A power left-handed bat who also had the ball-strike eye of a hawk, a speedster on the bases,  and a cannon-like arm and ability to track balls anywhere in right field.  He was supposed to be the consummate five-tool player, and a prospect who nobody had seen the likes of since Ken Griffey, Jr.

He had what could have easily been a Rookie of the Year season in 2010 – hitting .277 with 144 hits,  18 home runs and 72 RBI (he finished second in the ROY voting) – and when you have that kind of start to your career, the bar gets raised in a big hurry on you.  But it looked like Heyward was ready to handle it.  He had an even temperament, and a kind of quiet cool about him that let you know he wasn’t to be rattled.   He also had shown a flair for the dramatic in his rookie campaign, coming up time and time again with the game on the line, and delivering a game winning hit.

In 2011 fans were ready to see Heyward begin to fulfill the promise that he showed in his rookie year, but injuries and an unexplained hitting slump both brought many questions to the forefront about Heyward.  Some questioned his heart.  Some questioned his ability to play with pain.  Some just flat-out questioned his ability to not only sustain the type of numbers he had produced in 2010, but improve on them (which is what really needed to happen).

The numbers were dismal.  A .227 average, only 90 hits, 14 home runs and 41 RBI.  It was only his second season, and given the injuries that had plagued him the entire season, most were willing to give Heyward a pass, as well as the old “just wait till next year”.   But a hole had definitely been found in Heyward’s swing.  Pitchers took advantage of his inability to get good wood on breaking ball coming back in towards his body, and fastballs that were up in the zone.  He was swinging at more pitches, walking less, striking out more, and hitting many more pop-ups than line drives.  This was the kid who was tagged “the greatest prospect of his generation”, and somehow he had seemed to have lost control of both his mechanics and the strike zone.

But the great thing about baseball is that a year can make a huge difference.  Heyward worked hard on his swing during the off-season, and had come into spring training with the attitude that someone of his talent had no business platooning with a minor league journeyman (Jose Constanza).  The Braves were going to need Heyward to be the player they drafted in 2007.  He needed to be the guy that the pitchers feared, and fans adored.

The season started off well enough for Heyward, but once again we are starting to see some of the 2011 Jason Heyward creeping into the lineup, and the numbers for May have started to drop off.  That’s not to say that it’s as bad as 2011 (yet), but are the Braves really getting the Jason Heyward they expected…and need?   When you have the reputation and the expectations that Heyward had coming out of the minor leagues, then hitting .237 with only 5 home runs and 22 RBI when you are about one-quarter of the way through the season just isn’t going to get it done for a supposed budding superstar.  If you pace that out over the entire season, you have Matt Diaz type numbers…nice, but not spectacular.  Perhaps the most troubling stat of this young season are Heyward’s strikeouts.  With already 42 strikeouts this year, he is on pace to whiff over 168 times.  That’s 40 more than his rookie season, and over 70 more than last season.

There are still positives to Heyward’s game.  He’s still one of the best right fielders in the game, and still has great speed, but his contributions need to go way beyond that.  The Braves need more than just a slick fielding player out of Heyward.  They need the hitting presence similar to what Chipper Jones gives them in the lineup.

There comes a time in the point of a young player’s career that isn’t going as planned, when you have to assess the gap between the promise and the reality.  Sometimes that gap is just too wide to ignore.  I don’t know that we’ve reached that point in Heyward’s career yet, but things need to start trending in the other direction to close that gap.  The burning question for the Braves is, are they looking at Jeff Francoeur part deux?  And if so, is there a finger to be pointed within the organization for a string of high profile prospect failures?  The Braves organization and fans would like the answer to be a definitive “no” to both of those questions.