As we begin to wrap up the first full month of play in this 2014 Major League season, a quick look at the fielding leaderboards over at Fangraphs shows one thing: That the Braves, so far, have been excellent in the field. The starting pitching has been excellent, sure, but the defense has also been a big part in the Braves strong overall start to the 2014 campaign. They currently lead all of baseball in the major defensive category of DRS, and lead the National League in UZR/150. The team’s DRS of 28 is best in the Major League by 7 (ahead of the Rockies’ 21), and the only team in baseball who has a better UZR/150 number so far (the Braves have a UZR/150 of 19.8 thus far) is the Los Angeles Angels, who are currently at 23.6, mainly because they've been having stuff like this happen a lot lately.
I’m not saying that this is a surprise. Even with the stone-gloved statues who are currently manning 2nd base and 3rd base and Justin Upton having a couple of adventures in left field, it was always a pretty safe bet to say that the Braves would be pretty high in those rankings because of the other hands on defense, namely a man who recently garnered comparisons to the legendary Ozzie Smith. That man is Andrelton Simmons.
Young Simba, however, has had a rather pedestrian start to the season compared to his lofty standards. It’s early yet, but Simmons only has a DRS of 2. His UZR/150 was an encouraging 24.0 before Sunday's game though, which is slightly above the number that he put up in that category last season, so maybe, just maybe, Simmons can overcome his struggles and become a halfway decent defender like his double play partner Dan Uggla. In all seriousness, Simmons will probably put up some eye-popping numbers again, just as he did last season. If you're worried about Simba, don't be.
The surprise here is the fact that the unquestioned leader on defense this season has been Jason Heyward. Granted, we all know that Heyward is a very good defensive player. He passes the eye test 100 times out of 100, and the numbers back it up as well. He had a DRS of 15 in 2013, and finished the season with an 11.6 UZR and a 21.0 UZR/150. However, Heyward is currently on track to smash those numbers with the start that he’s had this season.
Although it’s far too early to depend on UZR as a stat, UZR/150 is still a decent stat to look at as we enter the second month of the season. Going into May, Jason Heyward currently has 13 DRS. His UZR/150 is through the roof at 55.9. Yikes. Using a cutoff of 180 innings for outfielders, Heyward’s DRS and UZR/150 are the best in all of baseball. Mike Trout is currently trailing behind Heyward in UZR/150 with a number of 42.3, while the next best OF according to DRS is Alex Gordon from our good friends in Missouri, the Kansas City Royals. Of course, all of these numbers for all of these guys will probably go down eventually, but these guys will probably figure to be at or near the top of these particular leaderboards all season.
So, as of right now, even though it's a small sample size and very early, Jason Heyward is currently the best defensive outfielder in all of baseball, and with plays like these, it’s hard to argue.
Now, what does this mean for his game as a whole? As we all know, Heyward’s numbers at the plate are a bit shaky so far. He’s currently hitting .191/.290/.277 with 2 HRs, 67 wRC+, a .265 wOBA, and a BABIP of .239. Those numbers are all far below his career averages and numbers, which means that it’s very likely that those numbers will step up.
I say that because while it’s a safe bet to say that Heyward will bounce back at the plate, there’s also a very good chance that his defensive production could very well be sustainable. Heyward’s fWAR is currently 0.9, and considering how anemic his offensive numbers are, it’s amazing that it’s not only above 0, but that it's nearly at 1 full win above replacement. That’s how good Heyward has been on defense, and if he can sustain those numbers while bringing his batting numbers back to "normal" per se, then this could potentially be one of the best seasons of his career as he continues to develop into a great all-around player.
Of course, the big issue here (as it always is with Heyward) is health. An injury could derail things and make it a bit harder for Heyward to improve his offensive numbers and maintain his lofty defensive numbers. But, if he can stay healthy (and somehow avoid the random incidents that derailed his 2013 season such as an appendectomy and getting walloped in the face), then it’s very reasonable to think that Heyward could begin to produce at the plate, and even if he regresses from his currently galactic defensive stats, he still figures to put up some solid numbers.
So, will Jason Heyward replace Andrelton Simmons as the premier defensive maestro for the Atlanta Braves? Probably not. Will Heyward continue to cement his place as one of the top outfielders in the National League? Probably so, and I'm sure that nobody here will complain about that.