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June 11, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Jason Heyward and Making Adjustments

by Sam Miller

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A few days ago, writing about Mike Trout, I wrote this:

Since 1950, five players have led their teams in WARP at age 20. They are Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Alex Rodriguez.

I should apologize, because that was just a classic fudge. That factoid purports to be about WARP, but if I wanted to list the top five WARPs by 20-year-olds, I would have listed the top five WARPs by 20-year-olds. Instead, I measured each player against his teammates, even though knowing the player’s teammates’ WARP doesn’t tell us anything about the player himself. It just lets us include Griffey but exclude Jason Heyward, which is what this long buildup is building up toward.

Heyward, in 2010, did not lead his team in WARP when he was 20. Brian McCann clipped him by about a half a win. If our defensive metrics had liked him a bit more (as the other win-above-replacement models did), or if they had liked Brian McCann a bit less, he could have made that list. And if I had instead simply ranked the top WARP totals for 20-year-olds until I got to include Griffey, Heyward would have been on the list:

  • Alex Rodriguez (1996) - 8.28
  • Frank Robinson (1956) - 7.39
  • Al Kaline (1955) - 7.35
  • Mickey Mantle (1952) - 7.27
  • Vada Pinson (1959) - 6.04
  • Johnny Bench (1968) - 5.08
  • Orlando Cepeda (1958) - 4.55
  • Jason Heyward (2010) - 4.34
  • Ken Griffey (1990) - 4.19
  • Tony Conigliaro (1965) - 4.00

It’s still a very, very fine list. No cheating necessary in this case: quite a list! Ten guys, nine of them retired, seven of those in the Hall of Fame, the other two famous enough that you’ve heard of them. But if you want to make a point about Mike Trout’s assured greatness, and Jason Heyward shows up as a comp, you’re not sure what to do with it. What is Jason Heyward? Is he a success or is he a warning?

Heyward, of course, followed that age-20 season with an unremarkable age-21 season, beyond the fact that any player who plays full-time at 21 is worth, at the very least, a remark. His OPS at 20 was the highest by any 20-year-old (minimum 200 PA) since 2000; but his OPS at 21 was the 22nd highest, in a pool of just 30. He fought through a shoulder injury, then missed time for the shoulder injury, then had his toughness questioned by Chipper Jones and his spot in the lineup briefly revoked by Fredi Gonzalez.

Jason Heyward’s story is about adjusting. He was a top prospect, and we kept adjusting upward. “Heyward is closer to Alex Rodriguez and Griffey than anyone: the can’t-miss of all can’t-miss players, ones whose plaques in Cooperstown practically precede their first at-bats,” Jeff Passan wrote in 2010. Then after 2011, we tried to adjust again. “He's 22 and immensely talented. I'm anything but out, but he does need to make adjustments,” Kevin Goldstein wrote, after that season. And now he is having the season he is having. “The rest of this article,” I wrote, two months into this season.

***

Those are the adjustments we make in how we perceive Heyward, but more significant are the adjustments the league makes to Heyward, and the adjustments Heyward makes to the league. The league has made adjustments to Heyward. They’re surprisingly subtle.

First off, you expect a young player who finds success to see more sliders and changeups and pitches outside the strike zone. This is actually an odd expectation. It seems like the league would start by assuming a top prospect can hit a fastball but not an advanced breaking ball, since those breaking pitches are the most significant difference between the minor leagues and the major leagues. Pitchers should, then, start the young prospect with breaking balls, and start with pitches outside the zone, and adjust away from that approach if it doesn’t work.

Sure enough, Heyward is not seeing more off-speed pitches now than he did in 2010. He actually sees slightly more fastballs, and slightly more pitches in the strike zone.

  • Slider: 14.5 percent in 2010, 14.6 percent in 2012
  • Curve: 8.4 percent in 2010, 8.6 percent in 2012
  • Change: 13.7 percent in 2010, 9.4 percent in 2012
  • Fastballs: 59.7 percent in 2010, 62.9 percent in 2012
  • Strike zone: 38 percent of pitches in the strike zone in 2010, 38 percent in 2012.

What has changed, a little bit, is the general location of pitches and of fastballs. Joe Lefkowitz’ PITCHf/x data includes 777 pitches of the 916 pitches Heyward has seen this year. Compared to the 1,000 or so pitches Heyward had seen on this date in 2010:

  • 21 percent of pitches are off the plate inside this year; 18 percent were inside in 2010.
  • The average speed of those inside pitches this year is 89.7 mph; in 2010, it was 88.2 mph.
  • Heyward has swung at 28 percent of those inside pitches this year; he swung at 20 percent in 2010.

Troublingly, Heyward has yet to have a positive outcome on any of those swings in 2012. He has fouled off 21, whiffed at eight, and made outs on 16. One of the outs drove in a run. Forty-five swings, and the highlight was an RBI groundout.

Considering his problems with hard stuff inside, it’s notable that Heyward’s hitting coach, Greg Walker, identified Heyward’s weakness this year not as handling breaking pitches, or controlling the strike zone, or the mechanics of his swing, but catching up to pitches. “He’s taken about 100 swings this year that I thought were perfect, that were just late; the ball was too deep on him,” Walker said this week.

Is Heyward hitting worse than he did as a rookie because he is doing poorly on inside pitches, or is Heyward doing poorly on inside pitches because Heyward is hitting worse than he did as a rookie? That’s obviously the unknown part of this, but if Heyward a) keeps seeing more pitches inside and b) keeps swinging at ever more of them and c) literally never gets a hit on those pitches, it’s bad. That would be a bad outcome. Uncontroversial.

***

Heyward has tried to adjust in 2012. He told John Perrotto he “lifted more weights and ran longer distances,” and that he was “swinging free and easy.” He focused on his swing mechanics during the offseason, and his manager and hitting coach saw further progress in his swing in spring training. He’s unquestionably more aggressive, swinging at a bit more than one extra pitch per game, and moving from one of the pickiest hitters in the league to a roughly average one. And?

  • 2010-2011: .255/.362/.427, 115 OPS+, 20 percent walk rate
  • 2012: .245/.329/.440, 106 OPS+, 10 percent walk rate

There are some differences there, in overall production and in where his production is coming from, but the main observation is that Jason Heyward this year is very, very similar to Jason Heyward before this year. That’s a bit of a headtrip, because Jason Heyward in 2010 was nothing like Jason Heyward in 2011, and yet the composite they formed ended up resembling, it appears, Jason Heyward’s true self. Heyward was not 2010, or 2011, but somewhere in between. “Somewhere in between” is almost always true, and, because we’re far too easily bored by “somewhere in between,” this is almost always a little disappointing. He might end up a great baseball player, but it's not going to come free, no matter how impressive the other names on the list are. A good baseball player should never be disappointing, and Composite Jason Heyward is a good baseball player. But boy, oh boy,

is it ever hard for us to adjust our expectations downward.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Jason Heyward,  Mike Trout,  Ken Griffey

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