ATLANTA — Jason Heyward, from the very beginning, carried the reputation of a fast starter.
In his first professional game at the Braves’ rookie level affiliate in the Gulf Coast League, Heyward sent a pitch from Phillies minor leaguer Cody Bunkelman into the outfield seats, fanning the flames of the hype that surrounded him after becoming Atlanta’s first-round pick in 2007. He was just 17 years old. It was a storyline that would repeat itself time and again throughout a dominant minor league career — all the way up until his first big league at-bat against Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano, an at-bat which ended in memorable, bases-rounding fashion.
The notion that Heyward has, in the past, exploded onto the scene at practically every level is nothing new. Fast starts are his thing, right?
The past two Aprils have not followed suit.
Heyward, still new to his role as the Braves’ leadoff hitter, has posted substandard early-season numbers the past two years, reaching base at a rate far below his liking. His .179/.289/.282 slash line entering Wednesday afternoon’s series finale against the Miami Marlins — a 3-1 Atlanta win behind another Aaron Harang gem and Evan Gattis late-inning hit — was the primary factor behind the Braves receiving some of the least production out of the No. 1 spot through the first 20 games, just ahead of the Red Sox and Reds. But even those numbers are better than last season’s April troubles, a month that ended with an unfortunate appendectomy following a .261 on-base percentage. All the same, it’s part of the process for Heyward, who has proven himself to be one of game’s bets all-around outfielders when healthy.
"There’s no rhyme or reason for anything, man. When (a slump) happens, it happens," Heyward said after reaching base three times on Wednesday. "When I start off hitting .300 and then have a month where I’m hitting .100 for the month, it is what it is. It just happened to be the first month (the past two seasons)."
The month isn’t over, though, and Heyward is quickly bringing those numbers up.
Now riding a five-game hit streak, he’s starting resemble the guy that helped spark the Atlanta offense in the middle of the 2013 season when he first made the unorthodox move to the leadoff role. His inter-streak numbers of a .363 average with two walks do not jump off the page, but for an offense that is trying to find some semblance of consistency, that type of presence at the top will do nothing but good things. Overall, in the past 11 days, he’s bumped his slash line up to .198/.309/.296 — unimpressive without context, encouraging when accounting for the slow start.
The 24-year-old feels it coming around, too.
"Timing’s getting better. More consistent. Starting to have better at-bats, getting better pitches to hit, laying off the tough ones," Heyward said. "Timing is everything, timing is everything. The timing’s consistent. And when you’re on time and you give yourself enough time to read pitches and react to them, versus being predetermined (to swing or not swing), it makes life a lot easier.
"You don’t see the ball out of a pitcher’s hand until you’re on time. I guess the later you are, the less you’re going to see the ball, the less time you have to react, to do what you need to do. So as a hitter you wanna be on time in order to see the ball."
Added Heyward’s manager, Fredi Gonzalez, following right fielder’s two-single, one-walk performance: "There’s no question (he’s hitting the ball better). That’s why I said, ‘Everybody panics.’ You think that nobody’s gonna go through ups and downs? But you’re starting to see signs that Jason’s swinging the bat a little bit again."
This time last season, the appendix-related news broke and Heyward was not provided the final week of April to bring his numbers back to respectable levels. And, in reality, he may not get all the way there this time around either (April splits through Wednesday’s game):
The point is that he’s starting to get back up to speed or, in his words, get his timing back. He’s got some work to, but the encouraging thing for any and all hitters (at least the ones receiving consistent plate appearances) at this point in the season is that one little hitting surge can flip the numbers entirely: this five-game steak Heyward is currently enjoying has bumped his average up 62 points and his on-base percentage up 38 points. There are 142 more games to go.
The Braves’ scoring numbers have hovered around league average the past two seasons (764 runs, 14th-most in MLB) in large part because the production at the top of the lineup has never really matched up with expectations — save for that run Heyward went on before a Jonathon Niese fastball broke his jaw — leaving the middle of the lineup with fewer runners to send home. If Heyward is getting on-base and B.J. Upton can continue to produce above his ’13 rates in the 2-hole (or Andrelton Simmons, etc.), then that will bring some good news for a team that has pulled more than its fair share of the load in MLB’s record-breaking 12 games ending in 1-0 scores in April.
Heyward has seemed to like that opportunity from the very beginning, and Gonzalez said that he never considered moving him out of the No. 1 spot during the early struggles.
"It takes pressure off the next person," Heyward said. "Even if I come up with nobody on base, there’s a little bit more pressure than there is with someone on ready to drive them in. It’s not a bad pressure."
Jason Heyward may not be getting off to the fast starts we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the past two years, but there is this note: he’s reached base safely to lead off each of the past four games for the Braves, including a line drive single off nearly untouchable Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez — Heyward laughed off his effectiveness against the young ace: "It was one base hit. That’s it." — in Tuesday night’s shutout loss. He’s finding early success once again, even if it is coming in small portions. This up-and-down Braves lineup will take as much as it can get.