In 2012, Jason Heyward very quietly became one of the best all-around outfielders in baseball. He was an above-average hitter, he was a great base runner, and he was a fantastic defender. Compared to his disappointing 2011 season, Heyward’s 2012 season marked improvement in almost all facets of the game.
The biggest concern about Heyward entering 2012 was his bat. After a fantastic 2010 debut in which he posted an eye-popping 14.6 BB% and .393 OBP, Heyward’s plate discipline, line drive rate, and power all declined. And while he did manage to hit fewer ground balls relative to fly balls, his Infield Fly Rate skyrocketed to an obscene 21.8%. Altogether, Heyward was a below average hitter in 2011.
In 2012 he took several major, positive steps. Sacrificing some plate discipline for better, harder contact, and with a retooled swing that led to a significant jump in fly balls, Jason Heyward posted a respectable .814 OPS, .351 wOBA, and 120 wRC+. His isolated power (ISO), meanwhile, jumped from .162 to .210. Most encouraging of all, Heyward’s line drive percentage jumped from a paltry 13.1% to 19.3%, which helps explain his concurrent jump in BABIP from .260 to .319.
In other facets of the game, Heyward shined. Fangraphs ranked him as the sixth best base runner in all of baseball. He routinely moved from first to third on singles and scored from second on hits; and he swiped 21 bases (8 CS) to boot. But what stood out especially was Heyward’s defense in right field. Simply put, he has become the best right fielder in baseball, and one of the best outfielders overall. In 2012, all the while passing the lying eye test, Heyward compiled a stunning 21.5 Ultimate Zone Rating all the while saving 20 runs above average. With three seasons in the books, we now have adequate enough data to conclude that Jason Heyward is one of the elite outfielders in all of baseball. He looks great out there, and the metrics back it up.
There are two primary hurdles Heyward will have to jump to take the next step. One is the plate discipline he sacrificed this year. Heyward’s BB/K-rate has gone from .71 in 2010, to .55 in 2011, to .38 in 2012. Although we can’t disentangle that decline from a concurrent increase in fly ball rate and slugging percentage, we shouldn’t ignore it either. Only when Heyward starts striking out less and walking a bit more than he did in 2012 will he reach his ceiling.
The other concern is his splits. Even with the 2012 improvements, Heyward was absolutely dreadful against lefties: his 72 wRC+ screams for a platoon partner. That said, the guy is still only 23, and other left-handed hitters with less impressive skill sets and more drastic platoon splits have learned how to hit lefties long after they broke into the league (see: Granderson, Curtis). Heyward should improve in this area just by virtue of his gaining more experience. But it remains something to watch for: when he learns how to hit lefties, he will probably win an MVP award.
With Chipper Jones retiring and Brian McCann aging, Jason Heyward has become the face of the Atlanta Braves franchise. Let’s lock him up right now so that he remains so for many years to come, and so that we can enjoy, not rue, his transformation into a perennial MVP candidate.
There is, in other words, no more time to wait: Jason Heyward’s time has come.