Richard Justice

After tough '11, Heyward goes back to basics

Justice: Heyward goes back to basics

After tough '11, Heyward goes back to basics
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Braves are quick to say that Jason Heyward absolutely, positively is not the key to their 2012 season. Got that?

"It's overall offensive consistency," general manager Frank Wren said, "and certainly Jason is part of that."

So many things happened to the Braves last season that it would be silly to put it everything on one guy. There were injuries in almost every corner of the clubhouse. There were some slumps, too.

Despite being 26 games over .500 on Sept. 1, the Braves never felt they were the team they envisioned being.

That's a huge reason Wren didn't make wholesale changes. For one thing, there was no way he could have fixed all that went wrong with the Braves. Wren believed that the Braves were still good enough "to get to the playoffs and beyond."

This Spring Training is ending with Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson seemingly past last season's injuries, while Dan Uggla and Brian McCann could be on their way to monster seasons.

And there's Heyward.

His second season in the Major Leagues was a nightmare almost from start to finish. In Spring Training 2011, he suffered a shoulder injury that forced him onto the disabled list.

Everything fell apart from there. Pitchers adjusted. He didn't. At times, the shoulder prevented him from doing the things he wanted to do. At other times, he seemed not to know what to do.

His batting average fell 50 points, to .227. His OPS declined from .849 to .708. His home-run total went from 18 to 14.

The thing that makes these numbers significant is that the Braves still have seen only glimpses of the player they believe he can be. Based on his numbers in the Minor Leagues and the flashes of greatness he showed in 2010, there's some expectation that he's going to be the Braves' next great thing.

He snapped out of a tough start this week with two monster home runs and a fabulous defensive play in center. He had a good winter working with new Braves hitting coach Greg Walker on both his mechanics and his confidence.

"Just a normal Jason Heyward year would be like going out and getting a top free agent," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "You're seeing an aggressive Jason Heyward at the plate. I didn't see that last year. Maybe it was the injury. When you don't feel right, it's hard to play this game. This year, he has been unbelievable."

When last season ended, Heyward took a deep breath and started over. He began working with his longtime hitting coach C.J. Stewart, and then with Walker.

With Stewart, he spent a couple of weeks never even hitting a pitch. Instead, they refocused on his approach, swing, footwork, etc. He also lost 20 pounds off his 6-5 frame (to 220 lbs.) because he felt the extra weight took away from his comfort level -- both at the plate and in the outfield.

"It was laying the groundwork, starting from scratch," Heyward said. "Get in your stance. Get comfortable. Everything. It was getting back to the groundwork, the basics."

Heyward is still only 22 years old, having made the jump from being a first-round pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft to the Major Leagues with just over 1,000 plate appearances in the Minors.

He sprinted from Class A ball to Triple-A in a year, and then was in the big leagues. At times, he was so good and so smooth that he made the game look easy.

"Let me stop you right there," Heyward said. "It was never easy. I got here with a lot of hard work. There was not one day it felt easy."

Besides, he said, that rookie year didn't exactly punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame. He reels off the numbers: .277 batting average, 18 home runs, 72 RBIs.

"That's nothing to get complacent about," Heyward said. "That season was a good starting point for my career."

He spent two weeks on the disabled list with a thumb injury and finished second to Buster Posey in the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year Award voting.

Then, he played through the shoulder pain last April, and after hitting .098 in May, went on the DL again. When he returned, he never really looked like the player he'd been in 2010.

"It's tough," Heyward said. "When you're hurting and can't make an adjustment, there's a lack of confidence. When you can't make adjustments in a game of adjustments, that's pretty tough. You know what you need to do, but you're body isn't able to do it."

Wren said he was impressed by how resolute Heyward was about putting his game back together.

"I don't think he could ever feel like he could get on track," Wren said. "Sometimes you need to get that season over with, and forget it and move forward. To his credit, he started almost immediately when the season was over getting his body in shape."

His .216 batting average and 22 strikeouts in 74 Grapefruit League at-bats entering play on Sunday don't reflect how much progress he has made this spring. The Braves hope this last week has been a window into what 2012 will be.

"Right now, it feels great," Heyward said. "That's hard work paying off. For me, this spring has been great. I love to work and to practice. It's great to see it paying off. I had to be patient. It's definitely a process working back from injury. Now, I feel I'm ready to start the season."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.