Jason Heyward: Just a Hot Streak, or Is the Phenom Officially Back?

Foster LanderContributor IIIApril 19, 2012

Heyward after a home run in Houston April 11.
Heyward after a home run in Houston April 11.Bob Levey/Getty Images

More often than not, young, elite prospects struggle to live up to ridiculous expectations upon reaching the big leagues.

Jason Heyward was certainly an outlier during his rookie season; he clobbered a three-run home run with his first MLB swing. He topped 18 home runs and reached base at nearly a .400 clip. He was the savior of the Atlanta Braves franchise.

Then, 2011 happened. Heyward struggled with a nagging shoulder injury for much of the season, which prompted Chipper Jones to criticize the youngster for not fighting through his aches and pains.

It seems obvious, however, that the injury severely limited Heyward’s swing. Jason, like most hitters, is most dangerous when he can extend his arms and drive the balls to all fields.

In his sophomore season, pitchers worked Heyward inside, then worked to jam him some more. When pitchers occasionally threw to the outside, Heyward, so intent on pulling the ball, grounded out or popped out to the right side much too often.

Heyward limped to a .227 batting average and a measly .708 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). He was not the same five-tool budding superstar whom Braves fans fawned over during the 2010 season.

Here’s where Greg Walker comes in.

Atlanta has had a revolving door at hitting coach for several years now, from Terry Pendleton to Larry Parrish. Neither coach fared well, though both likely took too much heat as easy scapegoats for frustrated fans.

Throughout the offseason, reports out of various Braves media sources indicated that Walker, Atlanta’s new hitting coach, had been working with Heyward to fix the holes in his swing and to regain his confidence at the plate.

So far, so good.

Before we get too excited, though, let’s remember the sample size for Jason so far in 2012: 41 at-bats and 12 games.

From watching Heyward this season, it’s clear that he’s closer to the 2010 version than to the enigma who wore the Atlanta No. 22 last year.

He’s back to driving the ball to all fields and is able to swing without trying to protect his shoulder.

He’s stealing bases and using his superior athleticism to force the issue on opposing pitchers.

In other words, he’s back.