2011 Atlanta Braves Player Review: Jason Heyward

This season, no position player attracted more criticism from Braves fans (or beat writers) than Jason Heyward. That's strange to me, because if you actually look at his season objectively, he was far from the worst Braves player. He struggled with the bat for much of the year, no question, but so did nearly every other Brave.

Let's look at how Heyward ranked among the 11 Braves hitters with 200+ PA this season:

  • wOBA: 5th (1st among OFs)
  • OBP: 6th (2nd to Bourn among OFs)
  • SLG: 6th (2nd to Hinske among OFs)
  • Walk Rate (BB/PA): 2nd (2nd to McLouth among OFs)
  • Isolated Power (ISO): 6th (2nd to Hinske among OFs)

And so on like that. Heyward doesn't rank below the middle of the Braves' pack in anything except batting average, which is close to meaningless on its own. He was clearly the Braves' best all-around outfielder. Granted, that says more about the overall quality of the Braves' hitters, especially the other outfielders, than it does about Heyward, but it's still important.

Despite all the criticism, Jason Heyward did not have a bad season in 2011. He didn't have a good season, either, much less the great season that many were expecting. But "disappointing" is not a synonym for "crappy."

The question that Heyward and the Braves should be trying to answer this offseason is this: What changes made his 2011 so disappointing? After the jump, I compare Heyward's 2010 to his 2011 to try to answer this question.

In trying to identify the reasons for Heyward's drop from a roughly 5-WAR player to a roughly 2-WAR player, I looked for differences that might help explain the gap. First off, though, let's point out a few things that I don't think played much of a factor:

  • Power Decline: Heyward's ISO went down a bit, from .172 to .161, but that is a normal fluctuation. His home run rate (HR/AB) actually went up slightly in 2011, as did his POW (extra bases / hits). His power levels weren't great for a RF, but they weren't any worse than in 2010.
  • Too Many Strikeouts: Actually, Heyward's K rate (K/PA) was nearly identical in each of his two seasons. It was 20.5% in 2010 and 20.4% in 2011. That rate is a bit high, but not excessive (MLB average: 18.6%).
  • Too Many Ground Balls: Well, Heyward's GB% and GB/FB are high, but both marks declined slightly in 2011, so that's clearly not it.
  • Defense: I honestly don't understand how anyone who watches the Braves could think Heyward is a poor defender, but I've heard that criticism often. First off, he looks like a good fielder, to me anyway. I don't pay attention to little mistakes here and there; I watch for range and route-taking, and Heyward does well in those categories, in my opinion. Objectively speaking, 2 years' worth of fielding data isn't enough to make a firm judgment, but there's no data to suggest that he's anything but above-average. Every major fielding metric has given him good marks in his career. He may not seem all that speedy, but think about it. He has those freakishly long legs, he moves well, and he's young; of course he covers a lot of ground.

Okay, so what did change, perhaps contributing to the decline? Broadly speaking, four factors:

  • Less Playing Time
  • Lower Walk Rate
  • Increase In Swing Rate
  • Huge Drop In Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP)

Let's address each of these items in turn.

Less Playing Time

Heyward got 27% fewer plate appearances in 2011 compared to 2010, so that's a fairly big chunk of potential value (around 5 or 6 runs) that the Braves missed out on, even given his lesser performance this season. This was due to 2 problems: his shoulder injury and all the games he spent on the bench so that Fredi Gonzalez could get Jose Constanza or Matt Diaz more playing time (pardon me while I stick another pin in my Fredi voodoo doll).

From the start of the season through the end of July, Heyward missed 25 games due to injury. All but 2 were due to the right shoulder issue. That's probably 90 PAs lost due to the shoulder.

In the last 2 months, Heyward didn't miss any time with injuries, but he only started 32 of the Braves' 53 games. Assuming he would have started around 50 games under normal conditions (with a few days off), he should have gotten around 200 PA in that time. Instead he got 113. So that's another ~90 PAs lost due to managerial decisions.

It's fair to say that about half the loss in playing time was directly attributable to injuries and the other half to Fredi's lineup choices.

Lower Walk Rate

In 2010, Heyward walked in an absolutely stellar 14.6% of his PAs. This year, that dropped to 11.2%, which is still really damn good (NL average: 8.1%) but also represents a pretty big decline. 

In the same number of PAs he got in 2011 but at his 2010 rates, Heyward would have reached base about 65 times on unintentional walks. Instead, he had just 47. That's 18 more outs and 18 fewer baserunners. His OBP with those extra walks would have been .359, not .319. That's still a ways off from 2010's .393 OBP, but it represents more than half the disparity.

What caused this lower walk rate? Many factors, no doubt, but one of them is that Heyward changed his approach fairly dramatically in 2011, swinging much more often than in 2010.

Increase in Swing Rate

First off, let's look at Heyward's plate discipline graphic for this past season:

Plate-discipline-heyward-2011_medium

Only 10 players saw fewer pitches in the strike zone than Heyward, yet his swing rate was only a bit below average, at 44%. That tells you right away that he was probably swinging too often at bad pitches. Heyward's contact rate of 77% is also below-average.

Looking at the Judgment stats, we see confirmation that he swung too often at balls out of the zone. Only 64% of his swings were at pitches in the zone, 5% lower the league average. However, Heyward rated very highly in Take Judgment, with 70% of his takes coming on balls out of the zone, which is 5% above average.

Heyward's aggressiveness and passiveness were essentially right at the league averages. In other words, his plate discipline was fine, but because pitchers kept working Heyward outside the strike zone, he still ended up swinging at too many bad pitches.

Now let's compare this graph to the one for his 2010 season:

Plate-discipline-heyward-2010_medium

In 2010, Heyward was also near the bottom of the league in terms of pitches in the strike zone. But notice how he responded: by swinging only 39% of the time, well below average. By comparison, he swung 5% more often this year despite seeing slightly fewer strikes. Since a change of 5% in one of these metrics is pretty huge, that's an alarming development, even if his Swing Rate was still below average this year.

Next, I want you to look at Heyward's Aggressive and Passive rates. Notice that he only swung at pitches out of the zone 23% of the time in 2010, compared to 29% in 2011. On the other hand, he took 43% of pitches in the strike zone in 2010, compared to 38% in 2011. So he was much more aggressive and much less passive in 2011.

Each player is different. There are some players whom you'd rather have swinging at a pitch out of the zone than taking one for a strike (Pablo Sandoval comes to mind). For others, you'd be content with them taking some strikes as long as they don't get themselves out by swinging at bad pitches. Neither aggressiveness nor passiveness is inherently good or bad, in other words (though both in combination is almost certainly bad, and the very best hitters often aren't particularly aggressive or passive).

In 2010, Heyward was very passive but very successful. In 2011, he had average passiveness but struggled. He swung a lot more at pitches in the strike zone, but if that helped him at all, it was more than outweighed by losses from swinging at many more out-of-zone pitches. As long as Heyward is being pitched the way he has been so far in his career, he needs to go back to being very selective. Hopefully new hitting coach Greg Walker can help Heyward get back to his less-aggressive ways.

Huge Drop in BABIP

Finally, we come to batting average, the cause of so much of the criticism of Heyward's season. Heyward's batting average dropped a whopping 50 points in 2011, from .277 to .257. That was driven entirely by a huge 75-point drop in BABIP, from .335 in 2010 to just .260 in 2011. The question is: why did his BABIP drop so precipitously?

BABIP is often used as a sort of proxy for "luck," but that's not really what it is. Luck plays a huge part, yes, but there are other factors in BABIP. If you hit the ball with less authority or in the air more, you'll have a lower BABIP. Heyward did both in 2011.

According to FanGraphs, Heyward's ground-ball rate was pretty much unchanged in 2011 (54%, vs. 55% in 2010). However, his fly-ball rate went up from 27% to 32%. From that, we'd expect a bit more power but also a lower BABIP. But Heyward's added fly balls weren't evenly distributed. Here's a comparison of Heyward's fly balls in each of his two seasons:

  • 2010: 83 fly balls per 306 balls in play; of those, 7 are on the infield
  • 2011: 101 fly balls in 306 balls in play; 22 of them stayed on the infield

So for the same number of balls in play, Heyward hit 18 more fly balls. That'd be fine, except that he also had 15 more infield flies! Since infield fly balls are basically automatic outs, that partially explains Heyward's low BABIP. Remove those 15 extra infield pop-ups and Heyward's BABIP goes up from .260 to .276. 

What caused those extra pop-ups? My guess would be swinging at bad pitches. Hopefully, Heyward and Walker can figure that out before next season.

So we know that Heyward hit more fly balls this year, but that he didn't hit many fewer grounders. That's because his line drive rate dropped precipitously, from 18% to 13%. His LD% was the 3rd-lowest in MLB out of 203 hitters with at least 400 PAs.* Given that about 70% of liners turn into hits (vs. around 23% of other batted balls), those lost liners really cost Heyward in 2011.

Overall, Heyward hit 40 line drives in 2011. At his 2010 rates, he would have hit 54. So he lost about 14 liners over the course of the season. That's about 7 hits lost (plus some extra bases). Add those back in and his BABIP goes up from .260 to .282.

Assuming that Heyward's problems with pop-ups and lost line drives were mostly due to approach rather than luck, that means that non-luck factors accounted for 35 to 40 points of the lost BABIP, or about half of the 75-point difference.

Accounting for the other half of the difference depends on how you view Heyward's "true" BABIP. Was he lucky to post a .335 mark in 2010, or is that close to his true skill level? If you think a .330ish BABIP is right for Heyward, you'd expect him to post a higher BABIP in 2012 even if he doesn't fix his LD and pop-up problems. And if he does fix them, he could return to that .330 level easily, or even surpass it if he gets some good bounces.

However, if you think that Heyward is naturally closer to .300 BABIP territory, then 2010 seems lucky, and 2011's low BABIP seems right in line with his performance, given the low LD rate and high IFFB rate.

Either way, Heyward will not repeat the success of his 2010 season unless he starts getting more hits on balls in play.

* One weird fact is that 5 of the 20 lowest LD rates in MLB were Braves (Prado was 9th, Uggla 13th, McCann 15th, and Chipper 19th). Overall, the Braves had the 3rd-worst LD% in baseball, ahead of only the Giants and the Nats. Either there's a glitch in the batted-ball classification regarding the Braves (very possible) or something was very, very wrong with the team's hitting approach (yeah, that too).

Summary

All in all, it was definitely a disappointing season for Jason Heyward. His hitting numbers were clearly subpar for a RF. However, it seems like most of the problems are attributable to either injury, approach, or bad luck. While Heyward's injuries continue to be a concern, keep in mind that he only had one serious injury in 2011, and it should be healed for the 2012 season.

Heyward's problems at the plate are definitely fixable. With a new hitting coach in the fold and an offseason to work out the kinks, hopefully Heyward's plate discipline and swing mechanics will get back on track. If they do, we'll all forget about his 2011 struggles quickly enough.

Heyward still has just as much potential as ever, and he only turned 22 in August. He's probably still several years away from his peak. One disappointing season shouldn't sour anyone on the future of this uniquely talented player, who will likely still end up being a core part of the Braves for years to come.

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