Ask Alex: Can Jason Heyward overcome his sophomore slump and return to his rookie form?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

We all have questions about the 2012 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address some of the big ones as the year progresses.

The Situation: Jason Heyward faced extraordinarily lofty expectations when he was named the Atlanta Braves' starting right fielder on Opening Day in 2010. But he met all of them, making the All-Star team just a few months into his major league career and finishing second to Buster Posey in the Rookie of the Year vote. That September, I noted the comparisons that had followed him as a 20-year-old African-American right fielder for the Braves, and saw that the numbers were in his favor: "Jason Heyward has been a better rookie than Henry Aaron was" was the title of the post.

Unfortunately for Heyward, last year was an injury-riddled mess, as he made just 106 starts in right field. A season-long slump led to his being benched for a couple of weeks for an unheralded 27-year old rookie, Jose Constanza.

The Question: Can Jason Heyward return to his rookie form — and even surpass it?

The Analysis: Lots of things went wrong for Heyward last year, including the loss of his starting job and undoubtedly some of his confidence. It was rumored that he refused to listen to the Braves' hitting coach, Larry Parrish. Chipper Jones also publicly called him out for not wanting to play hurt, which led to some suspicion that he needed a bit of an attitude adjustment. While Parrish has been fired after just one year, the Braves have indicated that they still believe Heyward will need to earn his job — as he did in spring training in 2010.

The optimistic case for Heyward, though, was recently presented by blogger Mac Thomason:

I think that a lot of people have overreacted. Gosh, Jason was 21 years old last year, and he wasn't that bad. I think that his injuries were probably worse than he let on — for all that some people seemed to think he was malingering — and that he suffered more than is generally realized from missing most of spring training. (I thought at the time that they should have left him in Florida for a week or two at the start of the season, though I understand the pressure to get him in the lineup, especially considering the sucking chest wound in center field.) He's never really struggled before, and he had some problems with that, and problems making adjustments. I think he'll get over that.

(The "sucking chest wound" was Nate McLouth, Atlanta's Opening Day center fielder, who hit .229/.335/.364 in 250 games in Atlanta from 2009-2011.)

It's hard to figure out just what to expect from Jason, since he's played two big league seasons with wildly divergent results. From his rookie year to his sophomore year, he saw drops in his Batting Average on Balls in play (BABIP), line drive rate, walk rate, and isolated power (ISO). In the meantime, he saw an increase in his swinging strike rate. About the only area of defined improvement was his stolen base success rate. But one thing remained strikingly consistent: His trips to the disabled list. He came up from the minors with a reputation for being slightly injury-prone, and has now made two DL trips in as many seasons. Whatever else we can extrapolate from his first few seasons, we know that it's likely that Jason will wind up missing games this year.

The other thing that has remained consistent is that Heyward is streaky, and that he has hit poorly when the Braves have tried to get him to play through an injury. During Heyward's first month and a half in the major leagues, April-May 2010, he looked like one of the best players in the majors, posting a 1.033 OPS. But then he jammed his thumb on a stolen base attempt and managed a .689 OPS until the Braves finally put him on the disabled list at the end of June. Likewise, Heyward hit well at the beginning of 2011, posting an .879 OPS through the end of April. But May was disastrous; he hit .098 in 17 games before landing back on the disabled list. He never looked quite right after that, and only managed a .700 OPS in 83 games after his return, including the time when he was replaced in right field by Jose Constanza.

While 2011 was a serious misfire for Heyward, his rookie season went almost exactly according to plan. As I wrote in March of 2010:

I think he could well hit 20-25 homers with a .280-.300 average and a .850+ OPS. Everywhere he has played, he has been an incredibly tough out. I don't think that will change now that he's earned a full-time role with the big boys.

His actual numbers in 2010: 18 homers, a batting average of .277, and an OPS of .849.

Prior to 2011, Heyward's history in the minor leagues was a pretty good predictor for his success in the majors. And Thomason's argument that Heyward's injury affected him more than the Braves would admit seems plausible in light of the timing of his slumps in 2010 and 2011. So the question is not whether Heyward will hit if healthy. The question is, rather, will he be healthy? And will the Braves force him to play, ineffectively, if he isn't?

The Forecast for 2012: It's almost certain that Heyward will bounce back to some extent. But it's unclear how much, particularly as injury forecasting is closer to Ouija than science. Most of the projection systems — ZiPS, Bill James, RotoChamp, and Fangraphs Fans expect him to split the difference between 2010 and 2011. But I was more optimistic than the projections before his 2010 rookie year, and I'll be more optimistic again this year, too, because I still believe in his underlying talent, even if I don't believe quite as strongly in the Braves' ability to keep him healthy. For a player who was always said to have great character, I think that last year may serve as a wakeup call.

So I think that his rookie production is a low estimate of what he's capable of doing. I believed he could hit 20-25 homers with an .850 OPS when he was a 20-year old rookie, and he barely underperformed that prediction. He's now a 22-year old veteran. Assuming he plays in at least 140 games, I think that's the level that he'll produce at this year. But if he exceeds it, I won't be surprised.

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Other questions for 2011: Can Matt Kemp go 50/50?

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