Jason Heyward hit the big leagues in 2010 as a 20-year-old prodigy, but also with a skillset that is more commonly found among players in their mid-thirties. Heyward drew 92 walks in his rookie year — the most by any player in their age 20 season since Ted Williams drew 107 back in 1939 — and succeeded at the plate with an extremely patient approach, something you just don’t generally find at that age. Because of his selective approach, Heyward was an instant star even with just average contact rates and slightly above average power.
However, Heyward’s success didn’t carry over to 2011, as he struggled with injuries and his BABIP fell 75 points, cutting the legs out from under his batting average. While he was still drawing walks, the moderate power wasn’t offsetting the outs he was making, and his sophomore season was a pretty big step backwards for the Braves right fielder. Instead of comparisons to The Splendid Splinter, Heyward was starting to draw whispers of guys like Ben Grieve.
The first two months of 2012 brought more of the same, as he ended May hitting .233/.327/.413. He was still drawing walks, but he was making contact at the lowest rate of his career and still not hitting for a lot of power. After his early career brilliance, Heyward had racked up 600 mediocre plate appearances, and the questions about his ability to produce at a high level were only growing louder.
Then came June. For the last 24 days, Heyward has been a monster at the plate, and a totally different kind of monster than he’s ever been before. In 72 trips to the plate, he has 14 extra base hits and has only drawn three walks, leading to an un-Heyward-like .391/.417/.754 batting line for the month. That’s something you’d expect from Josh Hamilton or an on-fire Adam Jones, not the most selective young hitter we’ve seen come along in a couple of generations.
However, Heyward is beginning to evolve as a player. The trends in his plate discipline stats are hard to ignore.
Heyward is swinging at more pitchers than ever before, and the uptick in his O-Swing% is dramatic — after swinging at just 23.5% of pitches outside the zone in 2010, that’s up to 32.0% this year. Heyward is unquestionably more aggressive at the plate now than he has been in prior years, and that’s been true since the start of the year. He didn’t suddenly become more aggressive in June — he just started hitting strikes.
Here is his rate of contact on pitches in the strike zone by month this year:
Heyward’s been working with a more aggressive approach all season, but in the first two months of the year, he was drawing walks because he was swinging through strikes and getting in deeper counts, although not the way you usually want to get into deeper counts. In June, those at-bats are ending with a ball getting ripped into the gaps or over the wall, because there’s one other thing that Heyward has changed significantly – his batted ball profile.
In his first two years of his career, Heyward hit 54% of his balls in play on the ground, but this year, that’s down to 39%. For an example, take a look at his swing on the second home run he hit against the Yankees last week:
The first home run was all location, as he got a pitch up at his shoulders and got around on it, but that second home run is not a ball that Heyward would have gotten in the air in previous years. It’s a slider down and away from lefty specialist Boone Logan, but he gets the barrel of the bat down and is still able to get under the ball, pulling it to right center field with authority. That ball probably isn’t a home run in every park, but that’s a pitch that was designed to get a ground ball or a swinging strike, and Heyward was able to get his bat on it and get some loft under it, which is just not something he’s done previously.
Instead of remaining a high walk groundball hitter, Heyward has morphed into a more aggressive fly ball hitter, and his season line is now even better than the one he posted in his rookie season of 2010. While ideally you’d like to see Heyward both hit for power and draw walks at the same time, the Braves have to be encouraged that Heyward is showing that he can hit for more power than he’s shown since his first two months in the big leagues. You don’t really have to worry about his plate discipline too much, as there’s no question that he has the ability to recognize the difference between a ball and a strike and understands the value of taking walks when necessary. That he’s having success with a more aggressive approach doesn’t mean he’s going to turn into Jeff Francouer, but it does mean that pitchers won’t be able to keep challenging him and getting away with it like they were in the first two months of the season.
Heyward has already shown an ability to control the strike zone. Now, he’s showing the ability to hit the ball in the air with regularity, and hit for power even on pitches down in the strike zone. Most 22-year-olds haven’t figured out how to put their game together, and Heyward is no different in that regard, but he’s flashing skills that show legitimate superstar potential when he does finally combine his entire skillset into one solid approach at the plate. Right now, Heyward is tinkering, but he’s finding success with that tinkering. When he no longer has to tinker, look out.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.