In baseball, as in life, perspective is crucial. In terms of the terribly struggling Atlanta Braves offense, Jason Heyward’s 79 wRC+ is merely one issue among many, because this is a team that’s also rolling out Ryan Doumit (34 wRC+), Dan Uggla (40), B.J. Upton (68) and Chris Johnson (also 79) on a semi-regular or more basis. When the entire offense is so wretched that as a team, their .302 OBP — and yes, I have filtered out the pitchers, so this is only the guys actually paid to hit — is No. 28 in baseball, it’s hard to single out the guy who’s been more “meh” than “flaming poisonous tire fire” when there’s more than one of the latter around.
In terms merely of Jason Heyward, who debuted at 20 with hype commensurate to Bryce Harper, homered in his first plate appearance, and is the owner of seasons of 4.6 and 6.4 WAR, this can only be seen as a huge disappointment. That 79 wRC+ is equal or essentially so to Curtis Granderson and Carlos Santana, each hitting under .200; to Allen Craig, who has looked like he’s playing a different sport; to Eric Young, who is inexplicably getting playing time over Juan Lagares; to Chris Colabello, all but assured of a minor league stint in his future.
There’s no shortage of theories as to why that is, of course. He’s striking out more than last year, but less than in 2010-12. His .258 BABIP could indicate some amount of bad luck. He’s hitting more balls in the air, which generally leads to fewer hits, but less of them are leaving the park than usual. There’s some talk that he’s had trouble with high pitches, and maybe that’s true; he has just four hits all year off such pitches. For his part, Heyward can only offer some platitudes about consistency.
But there’s also this: Heyward’s defense at the moment is rated as being so valuable that not only is he (by some measures) the most important defensive player in baseball, he’s still on pace for a nearly 6 WAR season.
The usual caveats here, of course, and you already know all of them. It’s less than two months of data, and defensive metrics are imperfect even over a full year of data. I think we all know that and know enough not to place the utmost certainty on these, but I also think that sometimes the rush tends to be to dismiss imperfect results and tossing out all of the information without even a cursory look at it, and that’s unfair. Eight weeks or so of baseball aren’t enough to draw irrefutable concrete conclusions; they aren’t nothing, either.
It’s especially so in Heyward’s case, because it’s not like he went from being Raul Ibanez to Gerardo Parra overnight — he’s always been seen as a very good outfielder. Since 2011, he has three of the 23 outfielder seasons with 15 or more Defensive Runs Saved, despite several injuries of varying severity that have limited his playing time. Overall, he’s DRS’ second-best outfielder to Alex Gordon in that span, despite nearly 1,000 fewer innings. By UZR/150, he’s the best. Feel free to quibble with the numbers themselves, but the general theory of “Heyward is and has been a very good defensive outfielder” is pretty clear.
But what’s particularly interesting is just how much the numbers like him this year. Heyward had 15 or 16 DRS in 2010, 2011, and 2013, along with 20 in 2012. He’s got 16 already in 358.2 innings; in his previous four years, he accumulated that in 861.2 to 1355.2 innings. He’s on pace for over 40 DRS this year; in the DRS era, only Parra has ever done that. And sure, part of that is because he can do things like this:
But it’s also because he gets to the easy and somewhat less-easy ones, too. You can see it on his Inside Edge fielding chart. The few balls he’s missed this year were all but impossible to get to…
…and a single game is all it took for his manager to regret resting Heyward and putting the lead-footed Doumit in right:
“When you make all the plays – I’m not talking about highlight plays – pitchers don’t have big innings (go against them),” Gonzalez said. “You boot the ball, then all of a sudden they have to use 8, 10, 12 more pitches to get out of that inning. Now instead of them going into the sixth, they’re out in the fifth. Or they can’t get into the seventh, because it takes them an extra 10 pitches to get out of an inning. And not necessarily having errors – it’s ball that drop in, and you go, man, a good right fielder… We’ve got the best right fielder in the game, I’m just thinking a good right fielder would have caught that ball.
The uptick in stats is perhaps in some small way due to the the Braves pitching staff, who — among other changes — have replaced Tim Hudson with Aaron Harang, leading to a two percentage point difference in GB/FB rates as compared to last year. It’s not much, but it’s something, worth expounding fewer than 30 words on, anyway: more balls to the outfield means more balls to act on. And that’s what this all really seems to be — small things that add up to improvement, because there’s not one particular item you can point to in order to explain Heyward’s defensive uptick. He’s healthy, after last year’s broken jaw and appendectomy. His pitching staff is allowing slightly more flies. He’s still only 24, and already has a track record of excellent defense. This didn’t exactly come out of nowhere.
But still: the offense. I said earlier that Heyward was on pace for “nearly 6 WAR,” and the actual number is 5.8. Since 2000, we have 192 seasons of 5.8 WAR or higher, from three ridiculous Barry Bonds years at the top to the inexplicable high points of Rickie Weeks and Corey Koskie at the bottom. It’s always a bit fraught with peril to merely extrapolate current stats out for the remainder of the season, as though we assume nothing about Heyward will change from May 19. They certainly will, and so the following is for entertainment value only: No one in this century has come close to putting together a season that valuable with offense this inept. Remember, Heyward’s wRC+ is 79. No one has had a 5.8 WAR season with a wRC+ below 100; only three (Machado, 2013/101; Franklin Gutierrez, 2009/104, Michael Bourn, 2012/105) have even been below 112. Going back to only 2000 not good enough? Going back to 1930, only Devon White’s 1992 (93 wRC+) is under 100, and that’s still not close to Heyward.
Again, defensive stats aren’t perfect. We saw Jeff examine Andrelton Simmons‘ seemingly “down” season just a few days ago, and come away with the idea that there’s really nothing at all wrong with Simmons. Heyward has always been a good outfielder, and he’s at least squarely in the argument for the best defensive outfielder in baseball. That’s not the same as being the best defensive outfielder any of us have ever seen, as the numbers might indicate he’s on pace to do; I might still take “the field” between now and October as far as who ends up being seen as the best defensive outfielder. But it does go back to the argument advanced stats subscribers have long had and specifically had in the Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera MVP discussions: defense matters. It matters a lot. And when you’re as good at it as Jason Heyward is, it can cover up a lot of other woes. Heyward might be hitting .215 and terribly disappointing everyone this year with the bat, but don’t let anyone pretend he’s hurting the team in the same way Uggla is. The fact that Heyward is a different kind of valuable this year doesn’t negate the fact that he is, still, terrifically valuable.