Jason Heyward has been having a bad year. He had back pain in spring training and missed a month this year with a shoulder injury, and was criticized by teammate Chipper Jones when he announced that he didn’t want to return to the starting lineup until he was fully healthy. Heyward claims to be unaffected by injury at the moment, but it’s hard to tell just how healthy he has been: pretty much all of his offensive numbers are substantially down, even including his walk rate. It’s hard for any team to go through something like this with a phenom; after his five-win rookie year, the Braves know he’s a huge part of their future, but this year he hasn’t been good at much except grounding weakly to second base. So the Braves did the unthinkable: they benched him.
Since August 1, after the Braves acquired Michael Bourn for center field, the team has played 14 games, and Heyward has made just six starts. The other eight starts in right field have been made by Jose “George” Constanza, a 27-year old career minor leaguer called up just before the trade deadline who has hit like Jeff Francoeur in July 2005, with a .425 wOBA over the first 17 games of his career. Constanza defines the phrase “hot hand” — he had an ISO of .066 in the minors, and he’s currently riding a 5.6 percent walk rate — but the Braves seem to have decided that they might as well ride him until the league catches up to him.
Heyward made the platoon decision slightly easier on the Braves by being utterly inept against lefties this year: he has just a .260 wOBA against southpaws versus a .330 wOBA against righties. The 70 point platoon gap is even more pronounced than it was last year, when he had a 52-point gap between a .393 wOBA against righties and .341 against lefties. So Constanza has been starting against lefties while Heyward sits, occasionally coming into the game as part of a late-inning double switch, or as a pinch runner or pinch hitter.
Unfortunately, while Constanza has been tremendously productive, amassing more wins above replacement in three weeks of work than Heyward has all year, the new arrangement hasn’t suited Jason at all. Since August 1, he’s hitting .136/.269/.273, with a .143 BABIP. He’s surely getting unlucky, but he has looked uncomfortable at the plate all year, and losing his starting job hasn’t helped.
That said, the Braves’ decision probably has to do with more than the Braves’ inconsistent offense and the slumping Jason Heyward. Fredi Gonzalez is a first-year manager, and I think he is trying to send a message and set a clear precedent that will last for the rest of his tenure in the Braves clubhouse:
- 1. No one receives special treatment, not even Jason Heyward.
- 2. This is not a team where superstars play by a different set of rules: you can play yourself into the starting lineup, and you can play yourself out of the starting lineup.
- 3. Even if you’re a callup on nobody’s radar, and you bust your ass and you produce, then you can earn some playing time even if Kevin Goldstein doesn’t think anything of you.
If that’s what Gonzalez is signaling, that’s the kind of message that is heard loud and clear by marginal prospects and organizational players, by the 12th man in the bullpen and the last man off the bench. If they all believe it, that can lead to greater clubhouse cohesion. Gonzalez is probably also reacting against the last team he managed; his last club, the Marlins, was essentially torn apart because of a superstar who didn’t play by the rules, Hanley Ramirez.
But a message is one thing, and strategy is another. Gonzalez is playing a dangerous game with Heyward’s development. Slumps happen, and the only way to work through them is to play — as the Braves admirably demonstrated by allowing Dan Uggla to play through his slump earlier this year. No one views him as a permanent platoon player, but the only way to prevent that is to let him get the experience at the major league level, and make adjustments as needed.
He’s a very intelligent hitter, with a very advanced knowledge of the strike zone, and he’s going through what may well be the hardest time he has ever had in baseball in his entire life: it’s hard for a playoff team to swallow his growing pains, but he’s going to have to have them either way, and postponing the inevitable is often suboptimal. He has been saying the right things, expressing frustration with his slump while saying he understands why the manager has benched him, but the benching clearly isn’t helping him, even if the team has benefited from Constanza’s fluky performance.
Heyward has not been good this year. He hasn’t been punished by an evil stepmother: he has seriously regressed, and it’s not clear why. His falling plate discipline is the biggest indicator that he seriously needs to work on his approach, but his infield fly ball rate has spiked from 8.4 percent last year to 23.7 percent this year, and if you have watched him play in any game this year, you’ve almost certainly seen him roll over a ball and ground it to second base. It’s hard to know what to do with a young player who suddenly starts playing a lot worse. One option is the Moustakas treatment, where the player is assured by the team that he has a starting spot no matter what. Heyward hasn’t received that. He’s been bumped.
No one on the Braves is pretending that this situation is permanent. If and when Constanza turns back into a pumpkin, Heyward will probably be re-inserted into the lineup. That will probably happen some time shortly before the beginning of the playoffs, which the Braves are on pace to enter as the Wild Card. In the meantime, the Braves will have to hope that Heyward is able to figure out his problems despite reduced opportunities to do so.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.