Entering draft season, Jason Heyward was something of a controversial player. Some (myself very much included) saw a young player who’d shown a consistently solid approach and flashed tantalizing power and speed components at various points in his career, enough to suggest that if the 25-year-old ever put everything together at once, there might just be top-10-in-fantasy-baseball upside in his bat. Others saw a passive hitter who couldn’t hit lefties and whose swing mechanics had devolved from his days as an elite prospect.
He ended up going 74th overall in NFBC drafts, but with a significant variance between high (36) and low (118) draft slots that reflected the uncertainties surrounding his profile. Fast forward through the first month of the season, and regardless of where in that range he went in your league, the returns have been… not good.
The numbers for Heyward thus far (.223/.277/.340, two homers, three steals) have obviously been quite poor, and he checks in just 73rd among outfielders and 326th overall in standard 5×5 value. Bad months happen, so those results are not the end of the world in and of themselves. But of far greater concern for managers employing his services is that he’s earned every penny of his struggles so far with approach and batted-ball collapses that don’t offer much in the way of optimism. We’re reaching the point in the season where some baseline stats are starting to come into range for stabilization as statistically significant, meaning changes in things like ground-ball and strikeout rates have to be treated as more than just small-sample noise.
The former category, ground–ball rate, is of particularly notable and troubling relevance for Heyward. Heyward’s average exit velocity of 91.36 mph checks in 44th out of 210 hitters with at least 30 recorded data points. Take the exact numbers with a grain of salt, as there’ve been some well-reported errors in early exit-velocity data collection so far this season. But the general takeaway should stand: It doesn’t appear that Heyward is just weakly rolling over on the ball; he’s hitting the ball reasonably hard. But he’s hitting a whole lot of those balls on the ground. A full 65 percent of his balls in play have been on the ground so far—a staggering leap of 20 percentage points from last season and about 22 percentage points higher than his relatively stable three-year trend. Ground-ball and fly-ball rates tend to stabilize at around 80 balls in play, and we’re at 74 and counting for Heyward.
Now, a couple of things. Just because Jason Heyward’s put up a ground-ball rate of 65 percent over a roughly stable sample of 74 balls in play does not mean he’s guaranteed to do it again over his next 74 batted balls. As Russell Carleton once pointed out in analyzing the findings linked above, stability numbers “are not nearly as powerful in predicting future performance as people seem to believe they are.” The point of measuring stability is that it allows us to point to a demonstrable change in performance that has occurred over a sample of data significant enough that luck and skill are at least roughly equivalent in their roles. The lack of predictive power is especially pertinent for a hitter adjusting to a “new normal”—be it an injury, a change in approach, or any other significant variable.
And one glance at the attack patterns pitchers have deployed against Heyward thus far reveals a fairly blatant and significant pattern. To wit, here are his pitch-location charts for 2015 (left) and 2014 (right)
Notice that while down and away is typically a dominant location to attack a hitter, and it’s indeed been a popular place for pitchers to work Heyward, hurlers have really redoubled their efforts so far this spring. Not only that, but they’ve succeeded in working him outside the strike zone down there. Heyward’s been chasing out of zone about three percentage points more often so far.
One important factor that appears to be aiding Heyward’s complicity in expanding the zone is that he saw an inordinate number of first-pitch strikes in the season’s first month—about 11 percentage points more than his career norm. And in those at-bats where he’s gone down in the count, he’s hitting just .146/.163/.292 with a 14-to-1 K:BB ratio. Hitters obviously tend to fare significantly worse when they go down a strike, but that performance amounts to over two hundred points of OPS off his career mark in similar situations. This dynamic ties into an inability to come back from down in the count to extend at-bats and work walks. Both his pitches-per-plate appearance (3.78) and walk rate (7.2 percent) represent career lows.
The whole package right now amounts to a player with a lot of things going on, and none of those things is particularly good. He’s being attacked differently, he’s responding poorly, pitchers are doubling down on that pattern of attack, and he’s changing his approach in response. I certainly don’t want to get psychological or intangible here, but there are also some secondary elements worth remembering here, including his offseason trade and the subsequent expectations of playing for the self-described “Best Fans,” along with his impending free agency and the potential for a nine-figure payday that goes with it. He sure seems to be pressing at the plate.
Regardless of the cause(s) driving it, we’re almost at the point where we can say he’s a different offensive player in the early going. On the one hand, the changes he’s undergone in approach and execution have been decidedly negative ones. On the other, the batted-ball results—lowlighted by a .243 BABIP despite all the groundballs—are so extreme as to suggest imminent positive regression is all but guaranteed. However it shakes out going forward, managers are pretty well stuck holding the bag for the time being. He’s not worth shipping off for 18 cents on the dollar, especially in keeper and dynasty formats, but the stack of negatives is thick enough that he shouldn’t really be targeted for a buy-low inquiry either. If you’ve got him and you can get fair market value (i.e., another top 75 player) for him I’d do it; otherwise, standing pat is probably the unfortunate play here.
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