Heyward's Sophomore Jinx

Jason Heyward has had a tough season so far in 2011. Whether it’s an occurrence of the fabled sophomore jinx or just a tough year battling injuries, Heyward hasn’t been on top of his game. A player as talented as Jason Heyward doesn’t just suddenly lose his hitting prowess.

Heyward is only hitting .223 in 85 games, but has 11 home runs and 29 RBI’s. To put that in perspective, he hit .277 with 18 home runs and 72 RBI’s in 142 games. He hit .211 this July and has been left out of the lineup for the past two games by manager Fredi Gonzalez. Heyward’s season leading up to the current benching has been rocky due to injury and inconsistency. He began the season with a bang, becoming only the second player to homer in his first at-bat in his first two seasons, but eventually spent time on the disabled list with soreness in his right shoulder.

[caption id="attachment_295" align="alignright" width="233" caption="21-year-old Jason Heyward has had a tough 2011 season so far. (Photo by The Associated Press)"][/caption]

He’s been benched in favor of Eric Hinske before, but in the past two games, rookie Jose Constanza has been in Heyward’s place. Don’t get me wrong, Hinske is a very fine player, but he isn’t Jason Heyward. Hinske is a good power hitter, but is somewhat of a defensive liability. Heyward on the other hand, is an excellent fielder and will be a gold glove candidate for years to come. While Constanza has been playing well, he is still an unproven rookie finding himself in the thick of a playoff push. He is a small and speedy player, but lacks Heyward’s raw power.

In my opinion, benching a healthy Jason Heyward is a very dumb thing to do. He is quite simply a world-class talent. He broke into the league as a 20-year-old and quickly established himself as a five-tooled player; hitting for average, hitting for power, fielding his position well, throwing well, and running the bases well. When evaluating his play, many forget that we have only seen glimpses of the real Jason Heyward. He started his rookie season last year on a tear, earning Rookie of the Month honors in April and May before earning his first All-Star selection. He missed the All-Star game with a thumb injury that nagged him the rest of the year. Even with a down second half, Heyward finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year race last season. In 2011, Heyward started out the year red-hot. He’s battled an inflamed right shoulder that still seems to be affecting him. Veteran third baseman Chipper Jones called out Heyward in early June, saying that “What Jason needs to realize is that Jason at 80 percent is a force, and Jason at 80 percent is better than a lot of people in this league. And that there are a bunch of his teammates that are out there playing with discomfort and not healthy, and still going at it." While Chipper is a great player who’s seen it all, I have to respectfully disagree. When do the Braves need Heyward most? June or September? Speaking from experience, shoulder injuries are tricky and can take months to heal. If it’s a labrum strain (tears require surgery) or AC joint injury, only time will heal. As a professional athlete, you need to trust your body. If there is even the slightest fear of reinjuring the shoulder, the player can subconsciously overcompensate, affecting his timing, power, and consistency of his swing. Since Heyward’s returned, he hasn’t been as dangerous at the plate. His batting average is down and his strikeouts are up. It is hard to definitively know if the injury is still lingering without being inside the organization, but you can only speculate. However, it is still possible he could be fine; just a 21-year-old still learning and figuring out how to play the toughest professional sport.

[caption id="attachment_294" align="aligncenter" width="512" caption="Photo by Alex Brandon/AP"][/caption]

It isn’t outside the realm of possibility that Heyward could still be hurting and Gonzalez is resting him. If this was true, why is Gonzalez putting up a front? I don’t see much, if any, of a strategic advantage. It would only cause more stress on Heyward and controversy around the team. As a Braves fan you can only hope he is slumping, not fighting through an injury. If he is only slumping, a player of his caliber will eventually figure it out. To figure it out though, Fredi Gonzalez needs to give him a chance to regain his confidence. As a new manager, showing confidence in a slumping Heyward will give the 21-year-old slugger confidence in himself.

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