The Arizona Diamondbacks sent Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves Thursday, ending a long saga of which everyone was so tired, it hardly matters who won the trade. (The Braves did.) Justin becomes the second Upton added to Atlanta’s roster this winter, and the most famous Braves outfielder of any surname. He’s powerful, talented and high-upside. Still, give me Jason Heyward.
In his rookie year, 2010, Jason Heyward homered in his first at-bat; posted a .393 OBP; and performed so well in big moments that he finished third in the NL in WPA (Win Probability Added, or the number of wins a player added with his hitting, taking the chances his team would win before and after his at-bats into account). He finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting. He was (and is) big, strong and very athletic, an above-average defender and above-average base runner.
Heyward wasn’t tapping into his full potential, though. That’s fine; he was 20 years old most of the season in 2010. No one expected Heyward to be perfect. Still, it was strange. As big (six-foot-five, 240 pounds) as Heyward is, he had a right to better power numbers than the 18 home runs and 52 total extra-base hits that he amassed in 2010. He was pounding the ball into the ground too much, far too much. He bounced into 13 double plays in 122 chances (at-bats with a runner on first and fewer than two outs), and again, his power was limited, as he had long hits in 10 percent of his at-bats.
The next season was short and forgettable. Heyward missed 34 games, struggled with injuries and was benched by manager Fredi Gonzalez for stretches (laughably) in deference to Jose Constanza. He didn’t look broken, but he sure looked lost.
By 2012, though, Heyward was more actualized. He figured things out. His strikeout and walk rates moved in divergent directions, to a theoretically worse 152:58 ratio, but Heyward simply traded that strike-zone control for power: He lifted the ball more, swatted 27 homers, doubled 30 times, tripled six times and grounded into only five double plays in 145 opportunities.
That last stat is stark and telling. Absolutely no one was more impressive than Heyward in double-play avoidance last season. Only Curtis Granderson came especially close, with the same five twin killings in 140 opportunities. It shows some maturity on Heyward’s part to have figured out so soon how to stay out of double plays.
Note: The above praise needs to be appropriately qualified. In reading through players’ double-play rates in The Bill James Handbook 2013 I noted something intuitive, but something I had not previously known. Left-handed batters are overwhelmingly better at avoiding double plays than righties. I’ve mentioned Heyward and Granderson, but among the best dodgers of double-ups below them, one finds less likely players like Garrett Jones, Mike Moustakas and Chase Headley. The best right-handed batter in this area, by the way, is Heyward’s new teammate Justin Upton. Go figure.
Heyward’s role will change now that Atlanta has acquired two Uptons in one winter. They’ll want him to get on base a bit more. He may have to trade his power back in a bit. One can only hope Heyward remains committed to hard contact and getting some air under the ball. If he does, he should grow into a dominant right fielder, left-handed slugger and dominator of the little things.Next post: Martin Prado, Starting Shortstop? For Arizona Diamondbacks, Maybe So
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