Trading places: Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman on divergent paths

Wednesday April 30th, 2014

Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman were both drafted by Atlanta in 2007, 64 spots apart.
Seth Wenig/AP

On a clear, cool morning in February of 2011, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward, both 21 years old, walked out to a back field at the Braves' spring training complex in Disney World to participate in a Sports Illustrated cover shoot. No one back then, including Freeman and Heyward themselves, would have predicted that three years later, Freeman would be Atlanta's most important player -- "the leader on that club, by far," according to a rival scout. They also would not have imagined that Heyward would be relegated to a supporting role, the full realization of his significant potential obstructed by a flaw that might not be fatal but is nevertheless consistently exploited by savvy opponents.

Freeman and Heyward had become fast friends shortly after the Braves drafted them 64 slots apart in 2007 -- Heyward went 14th, Freeman 78th -- and they were so inseparable as they rose up the club's farm system that teammates called them "Salt and Pepper," for just the reason that you would think. Even so, Freeman was supposed to be the sidekick. Heyward was Mike Trout before Mike Trout, an astoundingly athletic five-tool phenom with the talent to transcend his sport. The New Yorker had even profiled him the previous April, after Baseball America had named him the game's best prospect, ahead of Stephen Strasburg.

Freeman, meanwhile, looked like he would become merely a nice player. BA ranked him 33rd on its 2010 prospects list, and as Heyward spent that season as a productive rookie for the Braves, he told Freeman -- who lived in Heyward's house in Cobb County, as he played for nearby Triple A Gwinnett -- what he could expect when he too reached the majors. "He was like, 'Any person you talk to in a hotel, you gotta tip 'em,'" Freeman explained that morning in Orlando. When it was time for the cover shot, the photographer positioned Heyward front and center, coolly sitting on a cart of balls, while Freeman stood behind him with his left arm resting on Heyward's shoulder and a mildly goofy, happy-to-be-there grin on his face.

Two days this past February encapsulate how much things have changed since then. On Feb. 4, the Braves signed Heyward to a two-year extension worth $13.3 million, a contract that covered his remaining arbitration eligibility but bought out none of his years of future free agency. On Feb. 5, they gave Freeman his own extension: Eight years and $135 million, a deal designed to ensure that he will remain their centerpiece through 2021.

Since he became Atlanta's full-time first baseman on Opening Day of 2011, Freeman has essentially maxed out his talent and developmental curve. He started strong -- he finished second in the '11 National League Rookie of the Year voting after batting .282 with 21 homers and 76 RBIs -- and he has improved every year, to the point at which he has become an MVP candidate (he placedn fifth last year). Through his first 25 games in 2014, he was batting .344 with with six homers and 17 RBI and an OPS of 1.033, third-best in the league. By the age of 24, he has gone from a player once projected to be perhaps an above-average starter into one who toes the line between star and superstar, one whose only readily identifiable shortcoming is a lack of footspeed.

The cover of the Feb. 28, 2011 issue of SI.
Al Tielemans/SI

Heyward, meanwhile, always seemed destined for superstardom, but few would argue he has gotten there. Despite the fact that he reached the majors a year before Freeman, he has hit just one more home run (75 to 74), has 57 fewer RBIs and trails his friend significantly in batting average (.289 to .256) and OPS (.837 to .785). Heyward has been held back in part by injuries; he's already made four trips to the disabled list (Freeman has made one), and last year he missed nearly a month due to appendicitis, and then nearly another after he was hit in the face by a pitch from the Mets' Jon Niese and sustained a fractured jaw. The real source of his delayed ascent, however, is something that is more within his control.

Whereas Freeman has always had one of those fluid lefthanded swings that make scouting reports read like Keatsian odes, no one ever waxed poetic about the form -- as opposed to the power -- of Heyward's stroke. He sometimes looks like a golfer attempting to hit a three-wood off of a four-foot tee. "You watch him, he really stiff-arms the bat out there," said one opposing scout, referring to Heyward's propensity for almost fully extending his arms before muscling the head of the bat through the hitting zone.

When Heyward was a prospect, the consensus was that his swing, though slightly unorthodox, worked for him, so extreme was his talent. As it has turned out, the scout says, it is the one thing that has separated him from greatness, giving pitchers a clearly identifiable hole to attack. "He's easy to pitch to if you're willing to pitch inside," the scout said. "The ball he hits well is the ball out away from him. Anybody that pounds him in can get him. That's why Niese hit him: He went up and in, and Heyward's a diver. If pitchers pitch around him, on the outer half, he'll crush it. But power guys can get him out all day inside."

Indeed, charts of Heyward's so-called "Hot Zones" -- versions of which teams pass out to their pitchers before every series -- tend to corroborate starkly the scout's observations, and this season he has yet to demonstrate improvement. According to data kept by STATS Inc., through April 25, Heyward had seen 55 pitches that qualified as "up and in," delivered either to the upper left ninth of the strike zone or slightly north or west of it. He had swung at 22 of them, and those 22 swings had produced zero hits. If you want to know why a player who was a popular pick to have his MVP-caliber breakout is approaching the end of the season's first month with a batting average of .194 and five extra-base hits, this is a fine place to start.

Even so, just as it is wrong to view Freeman's development into an elite player as an underdog's triumph -- he is no Seabiscuit -- it is wildly inaccurate to deem Heyward as anything approaching a bust. He is a superb defensive outfielder -- the majors' best defender at any position so far this year, according to FanGraphs' UZR metric -- as well as an excellent baserunner and a powerful hitter when he gets pitches in his comfort zone. In fact, since he entered the league in 2010, FanGraphs pegs his cumulative WAR at 17.3, 21st overall among non-pitchers. He is still only 24, with years ahead of him in which he might tweak his swing in order to close the hole that has prevented him from ranking near the very top of that list, as his pure talent has always suggested that he can.

For now, though, Heyward is a reminder of how difficult it can be for even the most gifted players to turn potential into full-blown reality, and of how assiduously opponents will work to prevent that from happening.

The good news for the Braves is that even despite Heyward's struggles, they will end the season's first month atop the NL East and with the second-best record in the majors. The prospect of pairing a Freeman who is already better than most thought he would be with a Heyward who might easily still become as good as everyone has long expected suggests an ever-brightening future in Atlanta.

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