The Curious Case of Jason Heyward

Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

Were the struggles of Jason Heyward in 2011 and 2013 as real as they seemed, or is he destined to break out in 2014?

The Atlanta Braves have spent the last several weeks locking up just about every piece of their young core group to long-term deals, handing out about $280 million to five players on their roster that are the age of 25 or under. While Jason Heyward was a member of that group, he did not see the type of long-term commitment that other position players like Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons did.

Heyward isn't a fan of odd-numbered years. While that's not something you should expect to hear out of his mouth anytime soon, his performance during the last two odd-numbered seasons, those of course being 2011 and 2013, indicate otherwise. While many of his struggles are not directly related to a poor performance, it may be those two seasons that are holding him back from joining the ranks of the Braves' core that is locked in for almost the next decade.

Both the 2010 season and the 2012 campaign showed the world what Jason Heyward was capable of, as he flashed his massive upside. His 2012 season was particularly impressive, as he was the 10th most valuable outfielder in all of baseball. He finished with a 6.4 WAR as he slashed .269/.335/.479/.814 and belted 27 home runs. The performance with the glove was there as well, as he went for a UZR of 22.8 for the year.

That's obviously the version of Heyward that the Braves are looking for on a consistent basis before they make the type of long term commitment that they have with a guy like Freddie Freeman. He obviously has tremendous upside, it's just a matter of stringing those strong performances together for more than a season at a time. So just what is it that Heyward did in 2010 and 2012 that he failed to do in 2011 and 2013?

A quick breakdown of some Heyward's numbers from each of those four years:

PA wRC+ ISO BB% K% BABIP WAR
2010 623 134 .179 14.6% 20.5% .335 4.7
2011 456 96 .162 11.2% 20.4% .260 2.0
2012 651 121 .210 8.9% 23.3% .319 6.4
2013 440 120 .173 10.9% 16.6% .281 3.4

There are some intriguing numbers here, to be sure. One of the first is the disparity between plate appearances. He combined for less than 900 in 2011 and 2013, as injuries limited him in each of those two years. His lack of health played a particularly large role in his 2013 campaign, from his shoulder, to his appendectomy, and everything in between. Even with the injury problems in mind, there are still some encouraging signs that point toward a major breakout for Heyward in the near future and the establishment of a superstar in Atlanta.

While his penchant for striking out is discouraging, he does demonstrate some good discipline at the plate and manages to draw walks. His 120 wRC+ from 2013, even with the injuries, is also an encouraging figure. You can also look at his BABIP from each of the 2011 and 2013 seasons and determine that he fell on a bit of hard luck, which isn't necessarily on him, especially last season.

A couple of other figures to note refer directly to Heyward's pitch selection and contact rate. In 2013, Heyward went for just an 8.6% swinging strike percentage, down almost a full three percent from the previous season and more in line with his career averages. He also boosted his contact rate all the way up to 80%, which was the highest it's been in his career. Those numbers came in a "down year", just as that 120 wRC+ did, along with a .344 wOBA. So it may not even be a matter of what Heyward needs to do in order to find some traction—he's already doing it and has done so for the last two seasons.

It's only a matter of time before Jason Heyward is locked up on a big long-term contract with the Atlanta Braves. He's demonstrated that upside in three of the last four seasons. While some of his numbers from the 2013 season may not have appeared to be overly impressive, a deeper look indicates otherwise. He was clearly impacted by injury and bad luck, while still managing to post some respectable numbers across the board. Expect more of that as a healthy Jason Heyward seeks out that true breakout campaign in 2014.

Maybe as it turns out, the case of Jason Heyward isn't so curious at all.

...

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Randy Holt is a writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @RandallPnkFloyd.

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