The legend of Jason Heyward started off with a bang. Literally. In his major-league debut, a then 20-year-old Heyward took the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano deep for a three-run home run on Opening Day, becoming the fifth player in Braves' franchise history to homer in his first at-bat. He went on and finished his rookie season with a .273 BA, 18 home runs, 83 runs, 72 RBI and 11 stolen bases.
After playing in just 128 games with a shoulder injury the following year, Heyward put up his best numbers in 2012, blasting 27 home runs to go along with 93 runs, 82 RBI and 21 stolen bases. That led to the youngster being a consensus top-15 outfield selection in 2013, but, once again, injuries took their toll on the outfielder and he finished the season outside of the top 75.
An appendectomy in April kept Heyward out of action for nearly a month, and a gruesome jaw injury at the hands of a Jon Niese wild pitch sidelined him for another 30 days in late August and September. He also dealt with a sore shoulder and a bum hamstring on top of that, leading to a career low in games played (104). A year after a near 30/20 season, Heyward struggled to stay on the field and slashed .254/.349/.427 in 440 plate appearances with 14 home runs, 67 runs, 38 RBI and two steals. Now 24, Heyward enters 2014 with an ADP of 78.17 (or as the No. 24 outfielder), according to NFBC, and as Fake Teams No. 17 consensus outfielder.
Among FT writers, Heyward was ranked as high as 12th (by Matt Mattingly), and as low as 25th (by Daniel Kelley). I personally ranked him 15th, just two years removed from his breakout campaign. It's hard to blame Heyward for a season highlighted by injury on top of injury, but you must not ignore it either. Since the start of 2011, Heyward has missed a total of 96 games. While I believe the majority of last year's injuries were of the "fluke" variety, he is fast becoming a liability in the health department, with fewer than 130 games played in two out of the last three seasons.
When Heyward was on the field, the results were mixed. Heyward improved in both his strikeout rate (16.6 percent, down from 23.3 percent) and his walk rate (10.9 percent, up from 8.9 percent), and he also cut down on his swinging strike rate. Among plate discipline statistics, Heyward's contact rate climbed to a career-best 80 percent while he chased far fewer pitches outside of the strike zone (28.3 percent, down from 32.7 percent).
Among the bad was a frustrating batted-ball profile that included a career-worst 13 percent home run-to-fly ball rate (down from 16. 9 percent). While his line drive rate climbed over 21 percent, Heyward hit way too many popups, with an infield fly ball rate of 16.7 percent (up from 8.1 percent), which was among the league leaders. That's become an ugly trend in two out of the last three seasons, contributing to BABIPs of .260 and .281 in 2011 and 2013, respectively. Can injuries be to blame, or is this something that will haunt Heyward throughout his career?
Though a small sample size, Heyward was a much better player in the second half, hitting .305 in 36 games (compared to .227 in 66 first-half games). He was having his best month in August before fracturing his jaw, hitting .348 with four home runs and six doubles in 18 games. Heyward was still on pace for over 20 home runs (assuming 162 games), but a 32.9 percent career fly ball rate and an infield fly ball rate that's been over 16 percent in two out of the last three seasons doesn't give you much hope that he'll clear 20 long balls with ease. I still see a 20-home run hitter, but the much bigger question concerns his speed.
Since breaking into the bigs, Heyward's stolen bases have fluctuated from 11 to nine to 21 to two. Obviously, injuries were a contributor last season, but he only attempted six steals all year, being thrown out on four attempts. A 20-home run outfielder with five steals is a lot less valuable than a 20-home run outfielder with 15-20 steals. I don't doubt that Heyward's early-season appendectomy played a role, but, as a team, Atlanta only recorded 64 steals (in 93 attempts), the 24th fewest steals in baseball. Heyward will likely bat leadoff in front of Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman in 2014, and manager Fredi Gonzalez could be reluctant to run Heyward when the outfielder can just as easily score on an extra-base hit (Upton and Freeman combined for 109 extra-base hits last season). Unfortunately, Heyward's 2014 might come down to how many stolen bases he's afforded, and that's the hardest thing to predict.
As I mentioned above, Heyward is expected to bat leadoff in 2014. He did so in 30 games last season, batting .322/.403/.551 (compared to .226/.330/.385 in the second spot) with six home runs and 31 runs. I can easily envision 90-plus runs in this scenario, but you're not likely to see more than 70 RBI.
If you're betting on Heyward in 2014 (like I am), you're doing so on the validation of his upside (see: 2012), and the belief that 2013 was more or less the result of some bad luck (see: injuries). At age 24, there is plenty to like. He already has a 25/20 season under his belt and he improved in many areas last season despite being on the shelf multiple times. I wouldn't put it past Heyward to come out looking like it's 2012 all over again, but you're not likely going to get him at a significant discount.
Rotobanter projection ($15.00): .272 BA, 92 R, 25 HR, 68 RBI, 11 SB
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