Jason Heyward had a historic rookie season.
At the age of 20, Heyward had one of the 10 best statistical seasons of anyone to ever play professional baseball at that age. His performance was comparable to men like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Willie Mays at the same age.
With a WAR of 5.2, Heyward placed seventh in the entire National League. He finished fourth in on-base percentage and fourth in walks, showing patience and plate discipline that men 10 years older than him struggle with. Heyward accumulated these ranks despite missing 20 games to injury.
2011 has been a different story for the young star.
After a scorching April in which he posted a .879 OPS and slugged seven home runs, Heyward has been average. His power has almost completely disappeared, hitting just four home runs since April ended. He has not shown the plate discipline that he displayed last year.
In 2011, his walk rate was 14.6 percent. This year it's declined to 10.7 percent.
After hitting second in the order for most of 2011, new Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has dropped Heyward to seventh in the lineup. Recently, Gonzalez has favored light-hitting, 27-year-old, career minor leaguer Jose Constanza over Heyward in right field.
Before the trade deadline there was rampant discussion of the Braves acquiring Houston Astros' right fielder Hunter Pence. According to reports, such an acquisition might have resulted in a demotion to Triple-A for Heyward.
The second time through the league for young stars can be a difficult transition. They can put to much pressure on themselves and more is expected of them. Perhaps they learn to love the limelight a bit to much and lose focus. Pitchers adapt to them.
These issues maybe the cause for Heyward's problems in 2011. But another issue stands at the forefront.
The most obvious reason for Heyward's decline, and the Braves doubts about him, is injury. In May, Heyward landed on the disabled list with a shoulder ailment. Soon afterwards, he received some mild public criticism from teammate Chipper Jones for not playing through injury.
It's difficult to assess the magnitude of Heyward's injury. Only he and the Braves medical staff know for sure the condition of his right shoulder. It's an easy culprit to blame, because it acts as a reverse panacea. We can place on it all the blame we like, because we know so little about its extent and impact. It fills a void.
A cursory look at Heyward's approach at the plate does provide some evidence that the shoulder injury continues to bother him and is therefore a prime reason for his struggles.
Heyward is a left-handed hitter. His right shoulder is important for driving the ball, especially to right field, which as a pull hitter, is most important to him. An ailing shoulder has other detriments. It makes it difficult to lift weights, perform other exercises and feel comfortable while sleeping.
Anyone who has watched Heyward swing has observed how he drops his hands and generates his power by rotating his front shoulder in an upward motion.
This is why he's such a pull hitter.
He's generating his bat velocity with the front half of his upper body. Normally this can be a beautiful recipe for a line-drive hitter with power (think Ryan Howard, Josh Hamilton or Ichiro—who doesn't drop his hands as much, but has the same forward torque with his upper body).
A shoulder injury hinders the most important aspect of Heyward's swing. He is lacking the ability to generate the torque needed from his front shoulder to drive the ball.
This year, Heyward's line drive rate has dropped to 13 percent from the 17.8 percent in his rookie campaign. A full quarter of the balls he's put in the air have been infield pop-outs. As a rookie it was only 8 percent of his fly balls.
These numbers seem to suggest that Heyward's struggles are the result of his inability to drive the bat through the hitting zone. Braves fans and the organization need not panic too much at his sophomore slump.
All that may be needed is time to heal.
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