Slight of stature, fleet of foot, an annoyance on the base paths, a man who handles the bat like Luke Skywalker handles a light saber – these are the qualities most teams look for in a leadoff hitter.
At one time, the Atlanta Braves had such a hitter in Michael Bourn. Prior to that it was Rafael Furcal, Kenny Lofton, Marquis Grissom and Otis Nixon. But admittedly, the leadoff spot has been one that has plagued the Braves in recent history.
Bourn was brilliant for the first several months of the season, but it seemed he wore down in the final month to month and a half – something he has replicated nearly every season over the course of his career. The top of the order simply cannot fade and sputter at the end of the year, faltering when it matters most.
This season, the leadoff spot has been an epic struggle for the Braves. B.J. Upton began the year there; his struggles are well documented enough and need not be dipped into here. Jordan Schafer has been brilliant in his limited at bats at the top of the order, but he simply isn’t an everyday player. Andrelton Simmons was given extensive time at leadoff, but at this juncture in his career, he doesn’t have the strike-zone awareness, discipline or bat control to man the spot.
And so Freddi Gonzalez began juggling his lineup, switching things around moving Chris Johnson up to the middle of the order, send Simmons and Upton up from the bottom and putting Justin Upton in the two-hole. And then real brilliance struck – he moved Jason Heyward to leadoff.
And the team hasn’t looked back since.
Gonzalez placed Heyward in the leadoff spot on July 27 for only the second time all year. Heyward went 0-3 in the game, but he was right back at the top of the order the following night and went 2-4. It seems since then Heyward has truly found his role on the team.
He is now the hitter everyone thought he would be, but many began to doubt he’d ever become. He has had a blistering August, hitting .383 with three home runs in his last five games. The team is 18-3 since Heyward solidified himself at the top of the lineup.
At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Heyward is anything but your prototypical leadoff hitter. But he’s more than getting the job done. With his power, speed and rising OBP, the Braves lineup looks set to dictate the offensive flow of the game for the rest of the year.