ATLANTA—The parallels between players are impossible to miss, yet it doesn’t take long for Braves officials to try and distance Jason Heyward from former Braves phenom Jeff Francoeur.
Braves general manager Frank Wren and farm director Kurt Kemp are comfortable with the suggestion that Heyward, who just turned 20, is on track to one day be the face of the franchise, or at least join catcher Brian McCann in sharing the role as the career of Chipper Jones winds down in Atlanta.
They just don’t want to say that Heyward is following in Francoeur’s footsteps—even if Francoeur blazed this very path four short years ago—lest there be some insinuation that he might follow that trail all the way off an ugly ledge like the one that came earlier this summer. That’s when Francoeur, in desperate need of new scenery, was traded to the Mets.
So they speak in a respectful yet hesitant way, mindful that there is only so much they can do to manage perceptions. It’s natural for people to wonder if Francoeur left behind a cautionary tale, which the Braves used to create a new template that they’re applying to Heyward.
“The answer to that, I would say, is no,” Kemp said. “I can’t give you an example of something we would do differently. I think we have to fairly give Jason Heyward a chance to be Jason Heyward. I think he is his own person, with his own personal makeup. . . with the similarity that they’re both hometown guys.”
Heyward did not receive a September callup when rosters expanded, even though he may appear as ready as Francoeur was when he moved up in the middle of 2005. All Francoeur did was finish runner-up in voting for National League rookie of the year in half a season. That was Francoeur’s third full professional season, however, while this is Heyward’s second.
And unlike Francoeur, who struggled in his first exposure to Double-A in 2004, Heyward has thrived. In fact, he improved after moving up from high Class A Myrtle Beach to Double-A Mississippi, batting .336/.434/.605 with seven home runs there after batting .296/.369/.519 with 10 homers for the Pelicans.
Taken together—his .314/.399/.557 overall performance in his second full season, plus his ascension into the role of future franchise cornerstone—Heyward was an easy choice as Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, a singular distinction for a singular talent.
The comparisons are natural enough. Both players were hometown phenoms coming out of high school (Francoeur from Parkview High in the northern suburb of Lilburn, Heyward from Henry County High in McDonough, south of Atlanta). Both were drafted in the first round, both play right field and have cannon arms, and both have been beyond precocious as minor leaguers.
“I’m not sure that we can dictate or legislate (perceptions),” Wren said. “I think that’s going to happen on its own. We can try to prepare Jason Heyward for what’s coming. I think one of the things that we have going for us is Jason is a very level-headed kid. I think he’s able to handle just about anything.
“That’s not to infer that Jeff wasn’t. I just don’t know that we can manage it to the degree that we would like.”
What it boils down to is staying power, and developing more of it. When you produce as Heyward has, even as Francoeur still can, the debate about skills seems moot.
Heyward has lightning-quick bat speed, his defense and arm strength are above-average, he runs well, and at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds he could still grow more. He’s been compared to Dave Parker, Willie McCovey, Fred McGriff and . . . you get the drift.
Yet many more players have the skills to make it to the majors than have the gray matter to excel over time once there, to hold the pieces together through the swoons that are inevitable parts of the game.
On these topics, Wren, Kemp and Mississippi manager Phillip Wellman are happy to opine about Heyward. He’ll get your attention with his numbers (he had hit into one double play in 182 Double-A plate appearances, and a mere 10 in 977 career minor league plate appearances). The panting commences, however, on the topic of Heyward’s intangibles.
“One of the measures you have is how do they handle the failures that are part of this game because it’s going to happen to everybody,” Kemp said. “The physical game—playing every single night, being able to manage your body with rest, the way you eat, your conditioning.
“It’s a different sport than, say, football where you pump it up once a week and then come back down and practice six days. How do you handle failure, keep it on an emotional even keel? We all know he has outstanding physical ability, but all of the other things along with it, his mental makeup, his approach, his work ethic, those peripheral things that go into his makeup are Jason’s and Jason’s alone.”
Heyward’s ability to keep himself in the moment rather than rush himself impresses many. While he is uncommonly diligent in preparation, right down to his offseason strength and hitting coaches, he takes a simple overall approach: pressure be damned.
“Mentally, for one you’ve got to always understand it’s just a game,” Heyward said. “The struggles you have, it’s an opportunity to learn, make an adjustment. You take it as it comes at you. I trust my swing, my abilities, my hands. The mindset going in, the way you get more comfortable, is knowing you’re going to get another opportunity.”
Marshall, 1b, Albuquerque (Dodgers)
|1982||Ron Kittle, of,
Gooden, rhp, Lynchburg (Mets)
Canseco, of, Huntsville/ Tacoma (Athletics)
Jefferies, ss, Jackson/Tidewater (Mets)
|1988||Tom Gordon, rhp,
Alomar, c, Las Vegas (Padres)
|1990||Frank Thomas, 1b,
Bell, of, Syracuse (Blue Jays)
|1992||Tim Salmon, of,
Ramirez, of, Canton/Charlotte (Indians)
|1994||Derek Jeter, ss,
Jones, of, Macon (Braves)
|1996||Andruw Jones, of,
Konerko, 1b, Albuquerque (Dodgers)
|1998||Eric Chavez, 3b,
Ankiel, lhp, Arkansas/Memphis (Cardinals)
|2000||Jon Rauch, rhp,
Beckett, rhp, Brevard County/Portland
of, Bakersfield/Orlando/Durham (Devil
Mauer, c, Fort Myers/New Britain (Twins)
|2004||Jeff Francis, lhp,
Young, of, Montgomery/Durham (Devil Rays)
|2006||Alex Gordon, 3b,
Bruce, of, Sarasota/Chattanooga/Louisville
|2008||Matt Wieters, c,
Mississippi manager Phillip Wellman said Heyward is neither especially vocal nor timid. In a word, steady.
“We’re always looking for weaknesses we can develop. In all honesty, I’ve spent two months looking for things we can work on, and it sounds crazy, but I can’t find any,” Wellman said. “That’s a credit to his ability to make adjustments. He’s very cerebral. He’ll strike out twice on changeups, and I’ll say, ‘Now maybe there’s something.’ And the next time up, he’ll hit a 2-0 changeup 500 feet.
“Playing on a team with 23-, 24- and 25-year-olds, I think he’s been given that respect because of the way he handles himself, like a professional. For a kid who just turned 20, he’s very mature.
“It’s obvious that he’s been raised in a great environment. Both parents went to Dartmouth. I have a daughter who is 20, and he doesn’t have those silly tendencies. He’s articulate and well mannered. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and he’s obviously got a great tree.”
In spite of the surface similarities between Heyward and Francoeur, when you break it down, differences are there. The biggest by far comes in their approach at the plate. Francoeur is one of the game’s great free swingers, with just 132 career walks in 2,819 plate appearances. He has struck out 503 times.
Heyward? Not so much.
In fact, scouts had difficulty pinning down his skills as a hitter when he was in high school because so many opponents pitched around him—and he rarely went fishing for balls out of the zone. For this, Braves scouting director Roy Clark will be eternally grateful, because it allowed Heyward to slip to the 14th overall pick in the 2007 draft.
Heyward’s value has changed since then, but his patience has not. In fact, it has improved as he moved to Double-A. In his first 188 minor league games, Heyward walked 75 times and struck out 117. In 44 games with Mississippi, he walked 27 times and struck out 16. As pitchers get more cerebral, so does he.
“Good hitters do a good job of commanding their strike zone, swing at strikes and take the balls. He had an advanced ability, baseball maturity, strike-zone discipline,” Kemp said. “I talked with him a little bit about that at Mississippi, how different pitchers were. You can see the maturity just in his answers.
“A certain number of teams that are going to see him more than once have a different plan for him. He understands he has to get good pitches to hit. He has a good hitting plan, making adjustments at-bat to at-bat.”
Simplistic though it may be, the biggest difference between Francoeur and Heyward could be that Francoeur takes a football mentality to the plate: attack, attack, attack. Heyward’s plan: wait, bait and bash.
At Parkview, Francoeur was one of the top high school football players in Georgia, signing a letter of intent to play at Clemson after helping lead his school to consecutive state titles in the big school classification.
That may have worked against him.
High school football is a very big deal in the Peach State, and because of that Francoeur drew plenty of publicity before even graduating. Hence, heightened expectations when the Braves called him up.
Not every hometown player will arrive with such a heavy weight on his shoulders.
“I think every player is different,” Wren said. “Take Brian McCann (also a metro Atlanta product). He was in a different spot than Jeff Francoeur. I think part of the situation with Jeff is people had heard of him while he was playing high school football in Atlanta. Probably prior to us drafting Jason Heyward, very few fans had heard of him. One got a great deal of media coverage and one did not.”
Yet if you’re looking for something instructive to have come out of Francoeur’s path through the Braves organization, something team officials are using to light the way for Heyward, you might be searching for a while.
“You can look at somebody like Chipper Jones, a former first-round draft choice who came in with high expectations and has carved out a very nice career,” Kemp said. “He’s not a hometown guy, but I’d rather look at it as a comparison of two first-rounders than two hometown guys.”
There’s one other notable difference between Heyward and these other players that people may be shy about pointing out: Heyward is black. Should he one day surpass the nebulous threshold that defines a franchise player for the Braves, he could be a megawatt black baseball star in one of the nation’s most desirable cities for African-Americans. The Braves haven’t produced their own black star since David Justice was drafted in 1985.
One need only look at the NFL’s Falcons to see how big a deal it was to have a black quarterback in Michael Vick before he got into trouble with the law. When Vick disappeared from the NFL for a couple of years, the Falcons’ season-ticket base sank like a rock.
The number of African-American players in the major leagues dwindled in recent years to 8.2 percent two years ago (though it was above 10 percent last year) versus about 28 percent in 1977, when the Yankees won the World Series with a lineup that usually featured six black players.
Heyward could offer a booster shot in this regard. Yes, Heyward’s agent, Victor Menocal, has given this plenty of thought.
“We definitely feel that with all respect to McCann and those guys, that Jason can be the face of that organization in the future,” Menocal said. “He wants to give back to the community.
“I think with the percentage of African-Americans in the major leagues now being low, that definitely is important to Jason. Obviously being in Atlanta, I think it will help. If you look at him and you have the likes of Hank Aaron, Terry Pendleton and David Justice before him, he’s the up and coming prospect.”
You might expect a barely 20-year-old kid just two-plus years out of high school to stumble and stutter when asked about the prospects of being a hometown hero and franchise player, and how the juxtaposition of all that and being an African-American in Atlanta might bring pressures for which there is no training.
Heyward has thought about it. He has not dwelled upon it.
“As far as playing for the hometown, that’s a privilege and something not everybody gets to do,” he said. “There are some things that are going to come from a business standpoint that will make it tougher than others. But whether it’s my hometown or wherever, I’ve got to go out and it’s just baseball; it’s a game. I’ve got to remember why I started playing the game, because I have fun.
“The stage gets bigger, more people get to watch you, or you’re on TV. That stuff’s all fun, but players get to go out there and have fun and represent themselves.”
Wren may not want to compare Heyward to other players. He’s less hesitant about the implications of having a potential black hometown superstar, even if he doesn’t quite sound like he’s started building a marketing plan around the idea.
“It is undeniable that we have lost a large number of African-American players to other sports,” he said. “I think it helps us as a sport to have African-Americans as star players. I think that will help African-American players in the Atlanta area want to be baseball players. But I’ve never heard our fans talk about a player’s race or ethnicity. They’re just Braves, and we want to have good players.”
Right On Track
For all the oohing and aahing over Heyward’s patient, measured approach, he had an interesting answer when asked if he believes he’s on track—his track.
“I didn’t really have a schedule mapped out as far as what team I would be on when,” he said. “I just set out to have myself ready to play the best I can in the majors in 2009. I do feel like if they say, ‘Hey Jason, come up,’ I’ve done the best I could.”
Heyward has done quite well, but there is no guarantee he’ll hit the big leagues this year.
Kemp said when the Braves put together Heyward’s developmental plan after he signed for $1.7 million in 2007, the goal was for him to spend all or most of the 2008 season in one place rather than move him up quickly. They wanted to give him a chance to settle into a routine and formulate his own methods for dealing with the rigors of baseball as a day-in/day-out job rather than a hobby.
He was in low Class A Rome most of the ’08 season, moving to Myrtle Beach only for a few games and the playoffs at the end of the summer. This season, the Braves moved him to Mississippi in July, and at some point soon—whether for a cameo in September or next year—he’s certain to make the jump to Atlanta.
Kemp doesn’t think the jump will faze Heyward.
“I think about that. I think the really good ones cherish that, look forward to being on the big stage,” Kemp sad. “You saw the way he fit in spring training. Sometimes when we do that, guys have kind of a wild look to them for a while. Jason in spring training fit in right away.
“I think the really good ones really look forward to the challenge of facing the best, and being the best, and I see that in Jason. I think he’s looking forward to the day when that happens. I don’t think he’s going to put any additional pressure on himself.”
Wren wouldn’t touch the subject of a callup, but he offered the kind of summary judgment every player would like to have on his scouting report:
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that he is that kind of guy. He’s the kind of guy who can change a game,” Wren said. “We could put him at any of the three outfield spots at the major league level, and he could play them. He has speed . . . If you watch him from first to third, even if you were a novice, you’re going to be impressed.
“He has bat speed. I would venture to say there were not many guys in our camp this spring that hit the ball as hard as Jason. And he’s a good baseball player. It’s one of the higher compliments. It sounds simplistic, but to people in the industry it’s the highest compliment. He is a good baseball player.”
|While Jason Heyward is a five-tool player with elite offensive potential, he’s also well ahead of the curve in terms of his present hitting ability.
To get a sense of how Heyward stacks up against his predecessors, we picked out some of the best major league single-season hitting performances by high school draftees of the last 15 years, then looked at what each of those hitters did in his second full season in the minor leagues to see how it compares to Heyward’s 2009 season.
The chart below includes any high school draft pick who has qualified for the batting title and posted an OPS+ of at least 165 in any season from 1995-2009. OPS+ adjusts a player’s OBP and slugging average relative to the league environment and is park-adjusted. A 100 OPS+ represents a league-average hitter, while an OPS+ of 165 is a loose way of saying a hitter was 65-percent better than the league average that season.
Four of them—Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Gary Sheffield—reached the big leagues in their second full seasons and could end up in the Hall of Fame.
While the offensive environments vary from league to league and have changed over the years, Heyward’s minor league performance stacks up well.
(Note: We have excluded Puerto Rican draft picks, since they can be drafted one year earlier than U.S. and Canadian players, and thus are a step behind in their development.)
|Ken Griffey Jr.||1989||AL||MLB||OF||127||506||44||83||16||7||.264||.329||.420||.749|
Matt Winkeljohn is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
Photos by David Stoner