It is a testament to both the massive hype that Jason Heyward engendered as baseball's top prospect entering 2010 and his stellar rookie campaign that after five seasons as a well above average hitter and outstanding fielder, Heyward's young career is thus far viewed by some as a mild disappointment.
Indeed, Jason has not been the superstar predicted in the early days of the internet prospect hype machine. While a pair of gold gloves are nice, he has not yet hit 30 home runs, hit .300, reached 100 RBI or runs, or stolen more than 21 bases in a season. Meanwhile, those hoping for him to spring into the major league universe as a fully formed baseball deity have had to watch Mike Trout do just that and Giancarlo Stanton emerge as a power hitter par excellence. Rather, Heyward has only flashed potential for stardom while generally settling for a well-rounded game appreciated by people who read and write articles that use terms like wOBA, WAR, and UZR, but often maligned by those who are concerned with proper ratedness in over or under terms. It turns out that being well-roundededly good is not the way for a player once trumpeted as "the next Willie Mays" to earn universal affection.
But, good he has been. His career .262/.351/.429 line doesn't scream offensive stud, but it's a strong line anyhow, translating to a 117 wRC+. Add in good base running and outstanding defense, and Heyward has been the 18th most valuable position player in the majors over his career with 21.4 fWAR, one spot behind Ian Kinsler and one ahead of Ryan Braun. The only outfielders ahead of Heyward are Andrew McCutchen, Mike Trout, Jose Bautista, Matt Holliday and Alex Gordon. Giancarlo Stanton, the $325 million man, is two wins behind Heyward at 25th overall in that period due to 50 fewer games played and a chasm of difference in defensive value. Jason Heyward is probably already better than "good."
A common point of contention when discussing Heyward's overall value is that many folks generally distrust defensive metrics as a component of WAR, though rarely do they offer alternative methods or specific critiques other than "I don't trust it." Heyward is especially ripe for this sort of suspicion, as he extracts a lot of value from playing corner outfield, a position farther left on the defensive spectrum than where most truly talented defenders are usually found. But Heyward is a special case, and he has carved out a niche as a genuine defensive weapon in the corner with his glove, not his arm. Here is the full analysis provided by The Fielding Bible when unanimously naming him the award winner for his position last year.
"The Fielding Bible Award voters were unanimous about Jason Heyward as well. Heyward is the best defensive right fielder in baseball, bar none. He has had double-digit runs saved totals in every season of his five-year career. What makes him so consistently good? He refuses to allow an extra-base hit. Over his career he has been a bit above average on shallow hit balls (+18 plays in the Plus/Minus System) and on medium hit balls (+31). On deeply hit balls he is phenomenal. +140! That means he has saved 140 more bases making catches on deeply hit balls than an average right fielder. He was +40 on deeply hit balls in 2014 alone. Think of it like this: he saved 20 doubles last year! He excels at picking the ball up quickly off the bat and he always takes a good route to the ball. Overall, he had 32 Runs Saved for the Braves defensively in 2014, the highest total at any position in 2014 and a career high for Heyward."
A full explanation for what goes into defensive runs saved and +/- can be found from The Fielding Bible here. These are stunning numbers for Heyward. He saved more runs last year than Andrelton Simmons. He saved as many runs as Jhonny Peralta and Billy Hamilton combined. He saved more runs than Marcell Ozuna, Starling Marte, and Adrian Beltre combined. Jason Heyward is not just a good fielder. He's a great fielder, providing massive value in an area where it's rarely found.
One more point before we get to the crux of the argument promised in the title is that Jason Heyward is, well, gritty. He runs the bases well. He rarely grounds into double plays (just 3% of his opportunities last season). Matt Klaassen writes a post at fangraphs after every season called "King of the Little Things." He explained what it is here in 2009. Essentially, it subtracts traditional linear weights from game-state linear weights to measure a player's ability to help his team win in ways even when they're not knocking the cover off the ball. Productive outs help, reaching base on errors helps, and double-plays hurt, for instance.
These are things that we don't pay a ton of attention to in Sabermetric circles, and I'll still take the guy with the better overall line in a key situation than the one who has been good at the "little things." Klaassen himself points out that what his stat measures is probably not particularly projectible in a meaningful way. There are other issues with it, starting with the fact that the best hitters might be hurt by this metric because instead of little things, they're more often doing big things. But, it's a fun end-of-season project even with its warts, and it provides at least some evidence that Jason Heyward has been very, very good at these little things. He has been among the top five players in baseball at this strange metric in three of his five season, winning the award in 2012 and missing the top five only in his injury-shortened 2011 and 2013 seasons. Here are links to the awards for the 2010, 2012, and 2014 seasons.
The complete picture of Heyward shows a guy who will be appreciated by old school MVP voters as well as those who are more open to looking at advanced stats. He's charming with the media and plays for a cornerstone franchise expected to compete for its division in 2015. Add it all together, and he'll be a strong candidate in the sometimes strange MVP voting process if he can put up the kind of offensive season that will gain him entry into the conversation. He can do that, too.
There are two things to consider here that sometimes get lost in the arguments about how to properly "rate" Heyward. For those who defend the plenty that he has actually accomplished, it is perhaps convenient to gloss over one of the reasons that he, maybe understandably, has been a disappointment to many so far in his career. Michael Baumann over at Grantland touched on this last September in this article, concluding "... when you expect something to be transformatively, surreally great, you can't help but feel disappointed when it only turns out to be very good."
Let's revisit how those expectations arose, because while Heyward hasn't lived up to them at this point, neither has he done so little that we should forget them entirely. Heyward was drafted out of high school by his hometown team and promptly conquered A ball in 2008 hitting .323/.388./483 as an 18 year-old. In 2009, still a teenager, Heyward hit .296/.369/.519 in half a season in high A and then expanded his power and batting eye to the tune of .352/.446/.611 in AA in the second half of the year. Prior to 2010, he was named the number one prospect in baseball by most who rank such things, and was hyped heavily online and even by the mainstream media in spring training, during which he hit a 450 foot shot off Max Scherzer. He then hit a home run in his first regular season plate appearance and followed that with what was then (pre-Trout) the seventh best offensive season (wRC+) by a 20 year-old since the dead ball era. The six names ahead of him were Mel Ott, Alex Rodriguez, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Al Kaline, and Frank Robinson. The name behind him is Junior. He showed an advanced MLB hit tool, mastery of the zone, and power at an age when most of his peers were in the minor leagues or college. Heady stuff.
From there, it's been up and down. Heyward had a rough second year, during which he was bothered by shoulder problems. He was outstanding in 2012, and traded some of his patience (he had the worst BB% and K% of his career) for power, slugging .479 and emerging as a top-tier defender in putting up 6.3 fWAR as a 22 year-old. 2013 was interrupted by an appendectomy early and a facial fracture late, but otherwise he traded some of his slugging back for discipline and had a strong but different season overall at 120 wRC+ (compared to the previous year's 121). And as has been much discussed, his power went out in 2014, as he struggled with a changing approach he thought was needed from his team's leadoff hitter.
It's fair to say that his early career is an example of why we should not rush to deem young baseball players future all-time greats based on early success no matter what pedigree they bring, no matter how excited we might be to do so. But it's also fair to say that the things Jason Heyward did as a 20 year-old showed not just good, but generational talent, and four years marred partially by injury and trouble finding an ideal approach as big league pitchers adjusted to him does not erase that.
There's a term in fantasy baseball for a player people expected to be very good very early, who then struggles for several years only to blossom after casual fans forgot about them. These "post-hype sleepers" (Alex Gordon is a good example, as is Devin Mesoraco) pop out of the woodwork every year. Jason Heyward is no "sleeper," as he's managed to be a force despite not living up to early expectations, but there are pieces of evidence, both narrative and statistical, that suggest that Heyward's potential as a superstar is more latent than vanished.
Along with the transcendent talent he displayed early, the other big thing Heyward has going for him is his age. Returning to the point earlier about where Heyward ranks among position players since his debut, it is heartening that Mike Trout is the only player on the full position player list who is younger than Heyward. Of the other 16 players ahead of Heyward, Buster Posey is the next closest in age to Jason, and he's over two years older, as is Andrew McCutchen.
Some great players show up great and stay that way. Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera did not waste any time in setting the league on fire. But often, even elite players take their time in developing their offense. Here is a mystery basket of players with their plate appearances, wRC+ and (fWAR) in their early career. All of the following are outfielders. Two are active, and the other three retired in the last decade.
|Player A||Player B||Player C||Player D||Player E|
|age 21||--||484: 108 (3.3)||--||--||--|
|age 22||493: 122 (3.3)||611: 114 (5.3)||56: 34 (-0.1)||--||--|
|age 23||653: 124 (3.4)||614: 146 (5.4)||478: 109 (3.0)||63: 57 (-0.2)||--|
|age 24||678 : 130 (5.4)||679: 121 (7.1)||539: 129 (3.8)||322: 86 (1.0)||439: 104 (1.3)|
|cumulative 20-24||1824: 126 wRC+ (12.1)||2238: 123 (21.1)||1073: 115 (6.7)||385: 82 (0.8)||439: 104 (1.3)|
And here is Jason Heyward:
|age 20||623: 134 (4.6)|
|age 21||456: 96 (2.0)|
|age 22||651: 121 (6.3)|
|age 23||440: 120 (3.4)|
|age 24||649: 110 (5.1)|
|cumulative 20-24||2819: 117 (21.4)|
So where should we rank Heyward here? Player B should probably go first based on authoring both the highest wRC+ season and WAR season. An argument could be made for player A or Heyward next. Player A looks to have stable excellence, while Heyward had the talent to accomplish a lot while player A was still in the minor leagues, and his age 20, 22, and 23 seasons stack up well against player A. C looks like a fine young player, though far behind the three already mentioned, and players D and E aren't really anything yet.
What players A-E have in common is that they all made huge gains in their age 25 or 26 years and then held on to those gains to become true star players, and each player except D and E had a top-three MVP finish at age 25, while player E did so at age 27. Player A is Andrew McCutchen. Player B is Barry Bonds. Player C is Larry Walker. Player D is Jim Edmonds. Player E is Matt Holliday.
The point is not that Jason Heyward is a sure bet to leap forward offensively in 2015. It's not smart to predict a player will be an MVP candidate until they have actually already done so in the past, maybe repeatedly. Heyward's power drop in 2014 was strange and is genuinely concerning, though the Cardinals likely could not have acquired him had it not happened. But we should not overlook the fact that he has a special pedigree, has already accomplished a lot, and is still young enough where if he grows now into something much more than what he's been so far, we won't even look back at it as surprising.
John Sickels recently held a chat about the Cards' organization over at his terrific website minorleagueball.com. In setting up the conversation in the comments section of his post, he asked
Heyward was an excellent prospect five years ago and has been a very productive big leaguer, especially on defense, though not the star expected as a hitter. Do you think Heyward can blossom offensively with a new organization? (I have a strong opinion about this but will hold my fire for the comments.)
I was already working on this post at the time, so I was glad to get his opinion. I asked, "John, I'd love to hear your complete thoughts on Heyward's chances to rebound offensively. I'm very optimistic based on what he's shown in the past and his age and pedigree."
The evaluator's reply was succinct:
I think he will blossom. Assuming he stays healthy, NL All Star and MVP candidate.
Perhaps Heyward will remain merely very good, providing value through outstanding defense and solidity in every other aspect of the game, but it's not too late for him to become much more than that. If fact, it's not even late at all.