Despite all the gains advanced stats have made in gaining public acceptance over the years, there’s always going to be some cases that seem inexplicable to one side or the other. Jason Heyward is generally a good example of that, because if you still rely on traditional stats, you see a right fielder who hit .271 with 11 homers and 58 RBI and consider him a disappointment. If you believe in defensive metrics and understand the effects of age and the current offensive environment, you see a star who just put up a 5 WAR season at age 24 and could command a $200 million contract in free agency next winter.
One thing isn’t really disputable, however: Heyward hasn’t really delivered on the offensive promise he showed by putting up a 134 wRC+ at 20 in his rookie season of 2010. It was one of the finest age-20 seasons in baseball dating back to 1900, and everyone on the list ahead of him — with the exception of Dick Hoblitzel, who had his career cut short by World War I — ended up becoming either an inner-circle Hall of Famer or is a more recent player well on his way there.
Heyward followed up that smashing debut with a disappointing 96 wRC+ in 2011, due in part to a right shoulder injury, then put up three straight seasons in the 110-121 wRC+ range. While that all sounds similar, how he’s made it there hasn’t been. Heyward’s power has decreased — homers down from 27 to 14 to 11, slugging percentage down from .479 to .427 to .384 — while his on-base skills have improved, going from .335 to .349 to .351. It’s still valuable, it’s just a different kind of valuable, and not what we might have expected a few years ago.
So maybe this is what Heyward is now, and maybe that’s just fine. But to listen to Heyward himself, he seems to think he knows where the power has gone, and how he can get it back. Here’s two different bits from a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story on Sunday morning:
Heyward has been candid about how he felt batting first for the Braves last season – while necessary – limited his approach and contributed to a decline in slugging even as it increased his walk-rate.
Heyward felt compelled to work deeper into counts as a leadoff hitter and became reluctant to let go, as he had when he popped a career-best 27 homers in his third season. The Cardinals want to reach what they feel is the 25-year-old’s untapped production.
What Heyward does in 2015 is a big deal not only for his impending free agency, but for the Cardinals as they attempt to stay atop a tough NL Central and prove that dealing 10 seasons of pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins for one of Heyward (and two of reliever Jordan Walden) was the right move. So while I generally wouldn’t put a ton of stock into the idea that a different spot in the batting order made him a different hitter, Heyward believes it, and the initial look at the stats — less power, more on-base — backs him up. But is it true? Let’s find out.
Fortunately, the Braves made this pretty easy on us. In 2013, Heyward hit second almost exclusively until July 26, when he moved up to the top spot as Andrelton Simmons was bumped to eighth, and he stayed there for the rest of the year (excluding, of course, the few weeks missed after he was hit in the jaw with a pitch). In 2014, he led off until June 17, then spent the next two months hitting fifth, ultimately returning to the leadoff spot for another month. That should give us enough of a sample size to look into, and since he wasn’t being moved around on a daily basis, hopefully help us avoid the vagaries of streaks and opposing pitchers.
Let’s start with this quote: Heyward felt compelled to work deeper into counts as a leadoff hitter and became reluctant to let go, as he had when he popped a career-best 27 homers in his third season. Well, that should be easy enough to test. Did Heyward see more pitches as a leadoff man?
|2013 – 1st||4.25||45.6||134||.403||.551||167|
|2013 – 2nd||4.04||43.1||277||.330||.385||103|
|2014 – 1st||3.90||42.6||428||.343||.393||109|
|2014 – 5th||3.96||43.9||220||.368||.368||112|
There’s not really a lot to see here. In 2013, he saw slightly more pitches while leading off, though not a ton, and in 2014 he saw almost the exact same amount. He had a higher swing rate leading off in 2013, and a lower swing rate leading off in 2014; he had the most power while leading off in 2013, though not in a particularly huge sample size. Otherwise, his results have been pretty much the same no matter where he’s hit. If we’re looking for a correlation to Heyward’s comments, we’re not going to find it here. For comparison, he spent his big 2010 mostly hitting second, and saw 4.06 pitches per plate appearance while swinging only 38.7% of the time. In Heyward’s best season, he swung at the fewest pitches. Don’t let the anti-Joey Votto crew hear that.
So that idea seems busted, but maybe it’s not so much about patience as it is about approach. That is, if there’s one very clear reason why Heyward isn’t hitting for as much power, it’s declining batted ball distance, as this pretty graph I’m going to borrow from a RotoGraphs post by Karl de Vries shows…
…so maybe it’s less about how many pitches he’s swinging at, and more about when those pitches come. That is, if Heyward felt pressure leading off to let a hittable early pitch go by and instead found himself needing to go after a “worse” later pitch, that could impact the kind of contact he’s making — that he’s maybe swinging at pitches that are less favorable to him because he’s more worried about protecting himself in a two-strike count.
After all, we already know that he’s making more contact (75.2% to 80.1% to 82.1% between 2012-14), it’s just possible that it’s bad contact, because his Z-Contact rate has gone up as well (81.6% to 84.8% to 89.2%), even though his Z-Swing has dropped slightly. He’s swinging outside the zone less, and making contact more. That generally feels like it’s not good.
Fortunately, we have Brooks Baseball, and while it’s not particularly easy to sort numbers there by batting order position, here’s what we can do. We’re looking for power, right? ISO isn’t perfect, but it’s a close enough way to sort extra-base hits from singles, and as expected, Heyward’s ISO has plummeted from .210 to .173 to .113, in line with his slugging percentage. It’ll do for these purposes.
Heyward’s power zone over 2013-14 is pretty clear — low, and to the outside, but still within the strike zone. We’re not talking about Vladimir Guerrero, here; if it’s outside the zone, at least to the outer part of the plate, Heyward isn’t getting much power on it.
If his power woes are related to approach, as he’s indicated, then what we’d expect to see is that as the count progresses deeper, pitchers are throwing him fewer pitches in that spot — that he’s letting them go by early and being forced to swing at less-favorable pitches late.
Is that true? Somewhat. Let’s look at this two ways here, one how often he swings with zero, one, or two strikes, and also where the pitches are being offered to him with zero, one, or two strikes. (I’m skipping balls in the count to avoid multiplying this by more charts than anyone really wants to see; while they’re not unimportant, the theory here is about Heyward wanting to protect rather than attack.)
First, where pitchers put the ball against him, with strike counts noted in FanGraphs green for ease of use:
You probably can’t read the numbers there (larger version here) but it’s easy enough to see that by the time he gets to two strikes, he’s just not getting anything he can drive. Last year, he had just a .280 SLG with two strikes; for his career, it’s only .282. This doesn’t necessarily make him stand out from anyone else, because all of baseball hits for less power with two strikes, but we’re trying to understand his mindset here. If he’s looking for more power, avoiding two-strike counts would be a great way to do it.
How about when he swings?
Again, click through for a larger version, because what’s hard to see here is that the zone gets expanded at two strikes. Those left three middle boxes are all above 40% at two strikes; they’re all 15% or below with zero.
The calculus here is simple. More pitches off the plate to the outside equals more swings equals more balls hit the other way or with less power or worse contact, and pitchers have become more aware of that as they’ve seen more of him. Now, is it possible that Heyward getting out of the leadoff spot will let him focus more on power and worry less about getting on? Sure. He seems to believe it, anyway, and it’s true that his best power year (2012) was his biggest strikeout year. But if that happens, it seems like it’s going to be a bit too easy to point to that. He’ll be on a new team, in a new park, in a contract year, and likely in a pennant race after last year’s disaster. He’ll be another year off both the shoulder injury and the broken jaw.
Steamer, ZiPS, and the Fans all think Heyward is going to hit between 16-20 homers. That represents both a bounce-back from last year and short of what he did in 2012. But the more we see of him, the more it looks like 2012 is the outlier, and maybe that’s not so bad. After all, a guy years away from his 30s who can give you offense 15-20% better than league average with elite outfield defense is more than a little valuable just the way he is.