Monday, February 23, 2015

Did Batting Leadoff Hurt Jason Heyward?

In a recent article with the St. Louis Dispatch, Jason Heyward commented that he felt batting leadoff with the Braves over the last couple of seasons contributed to his declining power because he felt that he was encouraged to work deeper into counts and not "let go." While I could never explain the psyche of a player - way above my pay grade - I wondered if there was much evidence to support that.

So, let's look at working deep into counts. Here is a table detailing pertinent numbers relating to that idea.

Year Pit/PA Swing% Contact% SwStr%
2010 4.13 39.4 79.1 8.0
2011 3.92 44.7 77.1 9.9
2012 4.02 46.7 75.4 11.2
2013 4.07 44.6 80.0 8.6
2014 3.91 43.8 82.2 7.6

At first glance, you might look at the Swinging Strike% and think that brings validity to Heyward's claims, but in many ways, Swinging Strike% should be considered an extension of Contact%. Heyward was making more contact and missing less. Fairly simple idea, right?

So, let's focus on the the first number, or pitches per plate appearances. If anything, this should provide clarity to Heyward's comments that he altered his approach to work the count. But...here's where the data just does not support him. Now, that's not to say he didn't feel the pressure to work the count as a leadoff hitter. We commonly want that from the guy starting the game. But the results of this philosophy did not pan out very well.

Mike Petriello did a tremendous study that goes far more in depth than I can. In his article, Petriello did find some validity in the argument in that Heyward too often let his pitches go. The problem then became related to his Contact%. Heyward was making more contact, but often in bad counts. This leads to weak shots the other way for singles and/or outs, not extra base hits to right field. It's interesting to note for you "strikeouts are awful" proponents that Heyward's best year offensively since his rookie season was 2012, the same year he posted his lowest Contact% and worst strikeout percentage (obviously, these numbers correlate with one another).

Long story short...there are numbers that both support and do not support Heyward's contention. Whether the Braves wanted him to sacrifice power to work the count or Heyward subscribed to the theory of what a leadoff hitter should be...that, I can't even begin to answer. As Petriello says, we won't ever really answer this question because if Heyward rebounds and hits 20+ homers, we could just easily cite the new park, new team, more productive lineup, playing for a new contract, and so on. If he doesn't, we can just as easily look at many of the same things and say "that's the problem!"

I like Heyward and always will, but I find his criticisms in efforts to deflect the reasonable question ("where did your power go?) as a foolish effort by a man trying to save face. At the end of the day, only Heyward could control what he did at the plate. Only Heyward could let some expectation for leadoff hitters affect his hitting style. Whether Fredi Gonzalez or Greg Walker or Frank Wren or the Ghost of Otis Nixon was in his ear, he owned his .113 Isolated Slugging last year. That one is completely on him.

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