Jason Heyward burst into the majors in 2011, breaking car windshields with majestic home runs during spring training and then belting a three-run shot in his first regular-season at-bat in Atlanta. Just a few years removed from high school, Heyward played like a grizzled vet while posting the best offensive season by a 20-year-old (131 OPS+) since Ken Griffey Jr. back in 1990. Heyward, like The Kid, appeared primed for a strong of MVP-caliber seasons.
Instead, he crashed. Heyward dealt with a right shoulder injury for much of the season, hitting the DL from late May to mid-June. Pitchers pounded the 6-foot-5, 240 pound Heyward inside, and the long-limbed lefty struggled to adjust. His OPS+ plummeted to 93 -- more Jeff Francoeur than Griffey Jr.
Heyward bounced back in 2012, however, compiling a 117 OPS+ and crushing a career-best 27 homers with a healed shoulder. He put himself back in the discussion of the game's best young players by holding his own when pitchers tried to jam him. How did Heyward do it? Here's the inside story.
- Heyward appeared passive to a fault against inside pitches in 2011, swinging just 36% of the time (the MLB average is about 45%). Maybe he was reluctant to swing because he knew he couldn't do damage against those pitches with a bum shoulder. He hit one homer against inside stuff and slugged a National League-worst .242. On average, the fly balls that Heyward hit against inside pitches traveled all of 199 feet -- about 45 feet under the big league average for left-handed hitters.
- Heyward let 'er rip against inside pitches in 2012, swinging 46% of the time that pitchers tried to bust him in on the hands. He hit seven homers on inside stuff and slugged .411, slightly above the .399 average for lefty batters. His average fly ball distance on inside pitches climbed to 247 feet.
Still just 23, Heyward sometimes gets lost amid all the well-deserved Bryce Harper and Mike Trout hoopla. But if he stays healthy in 2013, J-Hey may join the 30 homer, 20 stolen base club -- an exclusive group that included just Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Ryan Braun last season. Pitchers and parking lot attendants, you've been warned -- Heyward could be in for an MVP-type year.