Heyward Performing In Elite Company

In our Hot Sheet chat on Friday, one question that I didn’t get a chance to answer—in part because I wasn’t sure of the answer, in part because I kicked the plug to my computer out of the wall twice during the chat—stuck in my mind. To paraphrase, the question was along the lines of:

Jason Heyward is having a ridiculous season. When is the last time a player his age put of these kinds of numbers?

The question interested me because I think it’s useful to examine prospects in this type of historical context. But my first reaction was that, while Heyward is a fantastic prospect who is having a great year and who had a monster week (ranking No. 1 on the Hot Sheet), I wasn’t convinced that his performance was anything unprecedented.

Well, it turns out it’s not unprecedented, but the list of players who have done what Heyward is doing isn’t a long one either.

This season, Heyward is hitting .338/.387/.519 through 235 plate appearances with low Class A Rome. Heyward, the No. 14 pick in last year’s draft, is still 18 years old and doesn’t turn 19 until August 9. So not only is he dominating pro ball in his first full season, he’s doing it as one of the younger members of his draft class, even among just the high school picks.

Since 1992, there have been 12 hitters who had as many plate appearances as Heyward with an OPS above .900 as teenagers in low Class A. Ages are as of June 31 of that season, meaning Heyward qualifies as an 18-year-old, though I have stretched out the talent pool to include 19-year-olds as well. 

Jason Heyward 2008 Rome SAL 18 OF 235 20 36 .338 .387 .519 .906
Travis Denker 2005 Columbus SAL 19 2B 434 67 78 .310 .417 .556 .973
Ian Stewart 2004 Asheville SAL 19 3B 581 66 112 .319 .398 .594 .992
Lastings Milledge 2004 Capital City SAL 19 OF 294 17 53 .337 .399 .579 .978
Daric Barton 2004 Peoria MWL 18 C 395 69 44 .313 .445 .511 .956
Prince Fielder 2003 Beloit MWL 19 1B 594 71 80 .313 .409 .526 .935
Kelly Johnson 2001 Macon SAL 19 SS 498 71 111 .289 .404 .513 .917
Corey Patterson 1999 Lansing MWL 19 OF 509 25 85 .320 .358 .592 .950
Sean Burroughs 1999 Fort Wayne MWL 18 3B 521 74 59 .359 .464 .479 .943
Adrian Beltre 1996 Savannah SAL 17 3B 288 35 46 .307 .406 .586 .992
Javier Valentin 1995 Fort Wayne MWL 19 C 433 47 75 .321 .398 .564 .962
Vladimir Guerrero 1995 Albany SAL 19 OF 464 30 45 .333 .383 .544 .927
Alex Rodriguez 1994 Appleton MWL 18 SS 278 24 44 .319 .379 .605 .984

Let’s get some obvious caveats out of the way. We’re just looking at raw OPS, lumping all positions together and not considering park factors or any change in the leagues’ offensive environments. The South Atlantic League is also more hitter-friendly than the Midwest League, meaning Adam Dunn’s .885 OPS in that the Midwest League in 1999 at age 19 was impressive but didn’t make the cut. We’re also excluding teenagers who have met these marks at a high level like high Class A or Double-A, such as Andruw Jones in his age 19 season. But even Jones couldn’t crack this list as an 18-year-old in the SAL in 1995, though he came close with an .884 OPS.

It’s too soon to pass judgment on the first four hitters, though Stewart and Barton were both top 50 prospects entering the season, while Milledge hasn’t received consistent playing time in the big leagues but is still 23 and loaded with tools.

Of the other eight, three are legitimate superstars (Fielder, Guerrero and Rodriguez), while Beltre and Johnson have been above-average big leaguers. The other three—particular Patterson and Burroughs, both of whom ranked as top five prospects in baseball at one point—serve to remind us that early success doesn’t always lead to big league stardom.

Heyward is hitting for average and power, though much of his current production is heavily-dependent on his .338 batting average. Heyward has excellent tools at the plate, including outstanding raw power that should develop further as he matures into his 6-foot-4 frame. Scouts praise Heyward for his advanced pitch recognition skills, so even if his batting average dips–let’s assume he’s not a "true" .340 hitter–he should make up for it with his pitch recognition and power.

Now, keep in mind that Heyward’s OPS is at the bottom of this list and there are still three months of the season to go, though Heyward may spend some of that time in high Class A Myrtle Beach. Still, what Heyward has done so far is certainly impressive.