April 5, 2010. 20-year-old Jason Heyward catches the ceremonial first pitch from Hank Aaron, then comes to the plate against Carlos Zambrano in the bottom of the first, with two on, one out, and the scored tied at three a piece. KABOOOM! A laser bombed into the back of the bullpen beyond the right field fence. It. Was. On. We were all witnesses to the genesis of the next great superstar career. How could he fail? His rise through the minor league system was as quick as my lovemaking. He was rated as the top prospect in the game, and his rookie season was a phenomenal success (.277/.393/.456 with 18 HR and 11 SB). But then the dreaded sophomore slump happened, but he rose like a phoenix in year three. Only to roll over and embark upon years of mediocrity. With that said, he was left for dead many of times, only to bounce back, like his brother from another mother, Jason Voorhees. So far in 2020, Heyward is batting .299/.411/.563 with 5 HR and 1 SB. Is this for real?
The BABIP is .309, so he hasn’t been getting particularly lucky. The strikeout rate is 15% while the walk rate is 15.9%. He’s always had good plate discipline, so these numbers aren’t too surprising. The number that jumps out is the .264 ISO. Back in 2012, he had an ISO of .210, but for the remainder of his major league career, it has been below .180 every year. Let’s dig in.
The hard hit rate is 49.3%, a career high. Last year, that number was 35.2%. Prior to that, it was consistently in the mid-to-high 20 percent range. The line drive rate is 30.1%, also a career high. The last time it was over 20% was back in 2016. The fly ball rate is down, though, while the ground ball rate is down as well. The 26.3% HR/FB is probably unsustainable. Or is it? Because it looks like he’s changed his approach.
The pull percentage is at 52.1%, a career high by a wide margin. For most of his career, it’s been in the low-40% range. The plate discipline numbers also show dramatic changes. The chase rate is at 20.6%, after being above 30% the last two years. He’s also swinging at fewer pitches. In the strike zone, Heyward is swinging at 57.6%. That number would be in the high-60% range in the past. In general, he’s swinging at 35.9%, after being in the mid-40% range.
Looking at the Statcast numbers, the sweet spot percentage is at 46.6%, after never being above 32% in the past. This newfound patience has allowed him to be more successful against breaking and offspeed pitches as well. Against breaking pitches, Hewyard has a .396 wOBA. Against offspeed pitches, the wOBA is .436. Both numbers have been below .250 the past two years.
Now, the exit velocity is only in the 30th percentile and the barrel percentage is only 36th, but the xSLG is 80th percentile. The margin for error to blast pitches into the rafters is low for Heyward, when compared to some of the more powerful sluggers in the game, but he’s waiting for his pitch and pouncing when he gets it.
If he can maintain this new approach, the floor looks relatively high for Heyward, which means a good average, some home runs, and RBI. He could also chip in a few stolen bases here and there. Not bad for one of your lower outfield slots. TREASURE